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Life imprisonment in the United States

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In the United States, 1 in every 2,000 residents are imprisoned for life. This is similar to the total imprisonment rate in Japan, which is roughly 51 per 100,000 residents. There are many U.S. states where a convict can be released on parole after a decade or more has passed. For example, sentences of "15 years to life" or "25 years to life" may be given; this is called an "indeterminate life sentence", while a sentence of "life without the possibility of parole" is called a "determinate life sentence". Even when a sentence specifically denies the possibility of parole, government officials may have the power to grant amnesty or reprieves, or commute a sentence to time served.



In the 1860s, reformation became favored over penitence in American penology, with the role of prisons seen as reforming prisoners, who were imprisoned until reform was achieved. The concepts of parole and indeterminate sentencing were regarded as forward looking in the 1870s for these reasons. However, these ideals were not as successful as had been hoped—crime was not eradicated, reformatories had the same problems as prisons regarding politicization and underfunding, and indeterminate sentencing became undermined by prisoners, who quickly found that it was possible to "beat the system" by pretense, giving a better chance of winning parole. Many were soon back in custody. Similarly, prison authorities could twist it to their advantage by selectively denying parole. But the biggest cause of the reformatories' failure to live up to expectations was that despite the enthusiasm of reformers, and Brockway's call for an end to vengeance in criminal justice, those within the prison environment—both inmates and guards alike—continued to conceive of prison as a place of retribution.

Schick's case, and life imprisonment without parole

In 1954, Master Sergeant Maurice L. Schick was convicted by military court-martial of the murder of eight-year-old Susan Rothschild at Camp Zama in Japan. The soldier admitted the killing stating he had a sudden "uncontrollable urge to kill" choosing his victim "just because she was there". Schick was sentenced to death. Six years later, the case was forwarded to President Dwight D. Eisenhower for final review. He exercised his right of executive clemency to commute Schick's death sentence to confinement with hard labor for the term of his natural life with the express condition that he "shall never have any rights, privileges, claims or benefits arising under the parole and suspension or remission of sentence laws of the United States".

In 1971 Schick began a legal challenge against his whole life sentence. The appeal eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974. It examined the constitutional basis of the punishment: life imprisonment without parole. Had Schick had been given an ordinary life sentence, he would have been eligible for parole in 1969. Although Schick's sentence was given only cursory mention, the court concluded a whole life sentence was constitutional. Schick, together with only five other federal prisoners still ineligible for parole at the time, was made eligible for parole by a separate pardon from President Ford either in 1976 or in 1977, and may have died a free man in Palm Beach, Florida, in 2004.

Despite the Schick opinion's lack of thorough analysis regarding life imprisonment without a chance of parole, an imposing amount of precedent has developed based upon it. After Furman v. Georgia, this has put the constitutionality of the death penalty in question as life imprisonment without parole received increased attention from lawmakers and judges as an alternative to the death penalty.

Such penalties predate Schick. One early American case was Ex Parte Wells, who was convicted of murder in 1851 and sentenced to be hanged. On the day of his execution, President Millard Fillmore gave him a conditional pardon commuting his sentence to "imprisonment for life in the penitentiary at Washington". Wells appealed the conditions of his pardon. But the sentence was upheld with no discussion by the majority of the purpose of the substituted punishment.


A few countries worldwide have allowed for minors to be given lifetime sentences that have no provision for eventual release. Countries that allow life imprisonment without a possibility of parole for juveniles include Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba, Dominica, Israel, Nigeria, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and the U.S. Of these, only the U.S. currently has minors serving such sentences. The University of San Francisco School of Law’s Center for Law & Global Justice conducted international research on the use of the sentence of life without parole for juveniles, and has found no cases outside the U.S. in which the sentence is actually imposed on juveniles. As of 2009, Human Rights Watch has calculated that there are 2,589 youth offenders serving life without parole in the U.S.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing minors to automatic sentences of life without a chance of parole for crimes other than those involving a homicide (generally, first-degree murder, and usually with aggravating factors or accompanying felonies) violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishments", in the case of Graham v. Florida. In finding that the U.S. Constitution prohibits as cruel and unusual punishment a life without parole sentence for a juvenile in a non-homicide case, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that "the overwhelming weight of international opinion against" juvenile life without a chance of parole "provide[s] respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions". In 2012, the Court considered whether to ban the automatic use of it completely as a sentence for minors, even in cases of aggravated first degree murder (what is usually called felony murder, capital murder, or murder with aggravating circumstances, and for an adult could mean a sentence of death or life without a chance of parole; the planned rape and murder of a young child or the planned murder of more than one person at a time—e.g., a couple in their house—would be two examples) where it is still a possibility. The Court had already judged the death penalty unconstitutional for minors in 2005. In June 2012, the Court ruled that it could never be automatically used as a sentence for a minor (under 18), although the Court left room for it as a sentence that can eventually be given (for now) in certain first-degree murder cases once the judge has taken mitigating circumstances and other factors into account.

The U.S. practice of sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without a possibility of parole violates international standards of justice, as well as treaties to which the U.S. is a party. Each state must ensure that its criminal punishments comply with the United States' international treaty obligations:

  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the oversight Committee instructed the U.S. to: "ensure that no such child offender is sentenced to life without parole [and] adopt all appropriate measures to review the situation of persons already serving such sentences".
  • The United Nations Convention Against Torture; the oversight Committee warned the U.S. that juvenile life sentences without a possibility of parole could constitute "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" for youth.
  • The oversight body of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination found that juvenile life without a chance of parole is applied disproportionately to black minors, and the U.S. has done nothing to reduce what has become pervasive discrimination. The Committee recommended that the U.S. discontinue the use of this sentence against persons under the age of eighteen at the time the offense was committed, and review the situation of persons already serving such sentences.
  • The United Nations General Assembly has called upon governments to: "abolish by law, as soon as possible...life imprisonment without possibility of release for those below the age of 18 years at the time of the commission of the offense".

    International standards of justice hold that a juvenile life imprisonment without a possibility of parole is not warranted under any circumstances because juvenile offenders lack the experience, education, intelligence and mental development of adults and must be given a reasonable opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.

    Use of life imprisonment sentence

    Although sentences vary for each state, generally the life imprisonment sentences are mandatory sentences for first degree murder, particularly when the first degree murder is done during the commission of another felony (the felony murder rule), or there are other aggravating circumstances present (such as is common for rapes which precede such murders, or the first degree murder of any law enforcement official or other public servant) in states without the death penalty, and as an (or the only) alternative sentence in states that have the death penalty and in federal and military courts.

    It may be given for "drug kingpins" and "habitual criminals". It has been applied in every state except Alaska, as well as in the federal courts.


    Over 159,000 people were serving life sentences as of 2012, with just under a third—nearly 50,000—serving life without a chance of parole. In 1993 the Times survey found, about 20 percent of all lifers had no chance of parole. By 2004 the number rose to 28 percent.

    As a result, the U.S. is now housing a large and permanent population of prisoners who will die of old age behind bars. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary, for instance, more than 3,000 of the 5,100 prisoners are serving life with a chance of parole, and most of the remaining 2,100 are serving sentences so long that they cannot be completed in a typical lifetime. About 150 inmates have died there in the last five years.

    Parole and nonviolent offenses

    Under the federal criminal code, however, with respect to offenses committed after December 1, 1987, parole has been abolished for all sentences handed down by the federal system, including life sentences, so a life sentence from a federal court will result in imprisonment for the life of the defendant, unless a pardon or reprieve is granted by the President, or if upon appeal, the conviction is quashed.

    Over 3,200 people nationwide are serving life terms without a chance of parole for nonviolent offenses. Of those prisoners, 80 percent are behind bars for drug-related convictions. Sixty-five percent are African-American, 18 percent are white, and 16 percent are Latino. The ACLU has called these statistics proof of "extreme racial disparities." Some of the crimes that led to life sentences include stealing gas from a truck, shoplifting, etc., but only for those with a pattern of habitual criminal offenses. A large number of those imprisoned for life had no prior criminal history whatsoever, but were given the sentence due to the aggravated nature of their crimes.

    Three-strikes law

    Under some "three-strikes laws", a broad range of crimes ranging from petty theft to murder can serve as the trigger for a mandatory or discretionary life sentence in California. Notably, the U.S. Supreme Court on several occasions has upheld lengthy sentences for petty theft including life with the possibility of parole and 50 years to life, stating that neither sentence conflicted with the ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    Notable examples

  • Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – Attempted to explode a transatlantic flight
  • John Gotti – Boss of the New York City Gambino crime family
  • Aaron Hernandez – Former NFL Player for the New England Patriots who was found guilty of first-degree murder
  • Lawrence Horn - Former record recording executive, contracted the killing of his ex-wife; his disabled son, and the son’s nurse, attempting to gain control of his son’s $1.7 million trust fund
  • Ted Kaczynski – The Unabomber, whose homemade bombs killed 3 people and injured 23 others
  • Lee Boyd Malvo – Accomplice of the Beltway Sniper Attacks
  • Terry Nichols – Main accomplice to Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995
  • Gary Ridgway - A serial killer who murdered 49 women in and around Seattle
  • Eric Rudolph – 1996 Olympic bomber, who killed 4 and injured 111 others
  • Jerry Sandusky - Former Penn State football assistant coach Gerald Arthur Sandusky was convicted as a serial child molester
  • Faisal Shahzad – The Times Square Bomber, who attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square on May 1, 2010
  • Ross Ulbricht - Manager of the Silk Road, an online drug-trafficking black market
  • References

    Life imprisonment in the United States Wikipedia

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