Saturday, July 25, 2015

Should life in prison really be life in prison?

When one considers controversy in the criminal justice system one of two issues immediately come to mind: 1) the death penalty, where effective arguments exist for both the pro and the con sides; 2) racism in the criminal justice system, where debate is typically over-emotional and illogical on both sides, especially from those complaining about the extent of racism; however, the widespread focus on these two issues draws attention away from other meaningful issues. One of these interesting issues that receive less attention is the question of justification for sentencing someone to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Not surprisingly there are a number of people who believe the judicial system should not have the capacity to hand down a sentence of “life without parole” (lwop). An aspect of this argument has been bolstered by three separate United State Supreme Court rulings, Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama, where it was held that it was not Constitutional to sentence juveniles to the death penalty or a mandatory life in prison without parole sentence regardless of the type of crime. Emboldened by this ruling a number of individuals have attempted to further advance this position to include eliminating lwop sentences all together or at least just expand the breadth of these ruling to young adults, arguing that a lwop sentence is a de facto death sentence.

Furthermore the argument goes that the general nature of a lwop sentence is not based on rehabilitation because the individual in question is never getting out of prison, it is a mixture of punishment and deterrence for other potential actors. However, the influence of this meaning is less relatable to juveniles and young adults due to their emotional and mental development. Proponents of the above position believe that time is the most relevant factor in “decriminalizing” individuals for the frontal lobes mature and, in men, testosterone levels decline reducing the probability of aggressive and impulsive behavior. Basically time is a superior method to reducing crime probability versus hoping young people view individuals similar to themselves incarcerated for the rest of their lives and come to the conclusion “I better not do that”.

In fact some may simply come to the conclusion “I better not get caught” suggesting a time old thought regarding crime, the probability for the certainty of punishment matters much more than probability for the severity if punished when considering the commission of a crime. Therefore, based on this reasoning these individuals argue that sentencing individuals, especially the young, to life in prison without parole does not serve either society or the individual in question.

Some have also argued that the deterrence factor does nothing significant to limit the occurrence of crime derived from passion for rarely do individuals calculate the benefits and consequences before engaging in an emotionally driven response. However, this argument is rather weak in its validity for most emotional actions do not typically produce a crime that will result in a lwop sentence upon conviction. Understand that lwop sentences rarely occur outside of homicides, most notably a Murder 1 conviction, which seldom have acute emotional components, even in felony murder cases. The general conditional pre-requisites for charging an individual with Murder 1 involves 1) premeditation; 2) willfulness; and 3) deliberation (typically with malice afterthought);

This above argument regarding passion and emotion creates concern in that the chief problem with attempting to expand the “lack of maturity” argument to lwop sentences is the nature of lwop crimes typically do not involve lack of maturity or emotional development as a meaningful factor. Basically regardless of the level of social, mental or emotional development, any individual without some form of brain damage should acknowledge that the elements involved in the crimes that warrant such a sentence (vicious and premeditated homicides or homicides in the course of committing other high level felonies like armed robbery, kidnapping, etc.) are against the law and consequences for their commission will be severe. One does not need to be a fully matured and emotionally stable 26 year-old to know that shooting someone in the chest with a .44 is not a good thing and will be harshly punished. One of the chief reasons for a differing stance between juvenile treatment with the death penalty and lwop sentences is the finality of the death penalty eliminates the ability to overturn mistakes in the judicial process.

Another aspect of weighing lwop sentences on young single count offenders is will the elimination of these sentences serve the concept of justice? For example if 20 year-old person A murders 20 year-old person B with all of the necessary elements to justify a Murder 1 conviction what type of sentence would represent justice? Realistically it can be argued that person B was robbed of at least 40 years of life, if not more, so should person A pay in a year for year context? If person A is only incarcerated for 20 years is that justice? Basically what type of punishment represents justice when one person blatantly takes the life of another?

Some would argue that keeping Person A in jail for the rest of his/her life is a miscarriage of justice because ending Person A’s life on de facto grounds does not serve the public interest or the interest of justice, it simply steals an additional life ruining two lives instead of one. However, the counterargument is that Person A can still have productive and positive experiences despite being in jail, something that Person B can no longer have at all.

It could be argued that the deterministic aspect of “without parole” is the problem for individuals who are sentenced to life with the possibility of parole are not guaranteed to acquire parole. Therefore, the elimination of this mandate would allow experts and individuals with intimate knowledge of specific prisoners to judge whether or not an individual remained a threat to society and if justice had been done. Individuals who favor judicial discretion in general would agree with this position for they are from similar molds.

Of course the counter-position is that there are a number of individuals who have received parole after committing violent crimes, i.e. been judged no longer a threat to society, and soon after their release committed similar or worse crimes resulting in their re-arrest and incarceration. Therefore, the issue of simply revoking the very idea of life without parole encompasses the idea of certainty. Should a population of prisoners who have “turned their lives around” be denied the possibility of parole to prevent another population of prisoners from manipulating such a system to acquire release and the ability to continue their criminal enterprise?

Another factor for consideration is how influential is the threat of a lwop sentence in “convincing” an individual to take a plea bargain, thus saving the state or Federal government money, time and other resources in not having to prosecute a murder case, which are frequently significant. If this influence is meaningful, then the loss of lwop sentences could result in a greater probability of delayed or even lost justice for the court system would have to deal with a greater influx of cases creating a backlog.

One of the more widely known important elements to supporting the elimination of “without parole” conditions on sentences is the belief that the prison system can produce sufficient rehabilitation potential. While existing track records are mixed in this regard, evidence does exist that prisons produce a means for individuals to “get it” and turn their lives around. Unfortunately for supporters of the various positions surrounding the elimination/reduction of sentences there is another important element in this process, which while receives lip service now and again, does not receive any significant level of public or political support: how to reincorporate criminals, especially those who have been incarcerated for a long period of time, back into the economic fabric of society?

This question is especially troublesome now for while it has almost always been difficult for criminals to re-acclimate themselves into society on some level, as society currently stands there are a number of individuals without criminal records have not been effectively incorporated into the economic framework who will be competing with these newly released criminals. Without the ability to incorporate newly released criminals, especially those serving long sentences for violent crimes, the probability of recidivism is high, regardless of age and emotional/mental maturity. Sadly this is a question that proponents of eliminating lwop sentences largely ignore kicking the proverbial can to the general “prison reform” crowd. This behavior is questionable because how can one in good conscious seek to eliminate “without parole” sentences whether for juveniles only or entirely without addressing this important question of economic incorporation? Some may argue that it is not fair to leave an individual in jail while this issue is addressed, but is it fair to society to release people that cannot be properly reintegrated?

The final major question regarding the elimination of “without parole” sentences is how to address the psychological impact of prison influencing an individual’s ability to live in general society? There is reason to believe that a number of inmates suffer from a form of institutionalization after a sufficient period of time in prison, which will negatively impact their ability to reintegrate themselves successfully back into society.

One particular change in psychology that could be significantly harmful to reintegration is the increased level of apathy, passivity, and isolation commonly seen from institutionalism.1 One of the more stereotypically, yet still true “rules” of prison life is stay invisible unless you are struggling for power; doing so means keeping your head down and your mouth shut. Unfortunately society has moved to a point where it almost exclusively prefers people be loud and expressive; in fact it appears, at least in the manner of public notoriety, that the motor-mouth arrogant frequently incorrect braggart is preferred over the stoic well-meaning fact-giver. Basically what is expected for “success” in prison life versus what is expected for “success” in “normal” life is largely contradictory. So how is this situation resolved? One could require inmates released after large incarceration periods psychological assistance from trained professionals, but who pays for this service?

Overall there are some important issues regarding the elimination of “without parole” qualifiers on sentences that go beyond simple age. The most noteworthy and important ones relate to the nature of justice, both in punishment and how such a change would influence courts, how long-term prisoners can be incorporated economically into a society that is leaving behind non-prisoners at ever increasing rates and how the potential psychological changes born from institutionalization influence reintegration? Until satisfactory answers can be produced for at least these three questions, notwithstanding other smaller more specific questions, the idea of eliminating “without parole” qualifiers in criminal sentencing seems inappropriate; remember individuals serving these sentences are not akin to those jailed for punching a guy in a bar for hitting on “his girl” or dealing small quantities of marijuana without a license in a state where it is legal by state law, but instead were convicted for very serious crimes that almost always involved the loss of at least one other life.

Citations –

1. Johnson, M, and Rhodes, R. “Institutionalization: a theory of human behavior and the social environment.” Advances in Social Work. 2007. 8(1). 219-236.

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