Sunday, October 02, 2005

To seek revenge may lead to Hell, but everyone does it, and seldom as well

Even for the NYT, this is a remarkably tone-deaf headline: "To More Inmates, Life Term Means Dying Behind Bars." Just a few decades ago, a life sentence was often a misnomer, a way to suggest harsh punishment but deliver only 10 to 20 years. But now, driven by tougher laws and political pressure on governors and parole boards, thousands of lifers are going into prisons each year, and in many states only a few are ever coming out, even in cases where judges and prosecutors did not intend to put them away forever. Indeed, in just the last 30 years, the United States has created something never before seen in its history and unheard of around the globe: a booming population of prisoners whose only way out of prison is likely to be inside a coffin. A survey by The New York Times found that about 132,000 of the nation's prisoners, or almost 1 in 10, are serving life sentences. The number of lifers has almost doubled in the last decade, far outpacing the overall growth in the prison population. Of those lifers sentenced between 1988 and 2001, about a third are serving time for sentences other than murder, including burglary and drug crimes. Growth has been especially sharp among lifers with the words "without parole" appended to their sentences. In 1993, the Times survey found, about 20 percent of all lifers had no chance of parole. Last year, the number rose to 28 percent. The phenomenon is in some ways an artifact of the death penalty. Opponents of capital punishment have promoted life sentences as an alternative to execution. And as the nation's enthusiasm for the death penalty wanes amid restrictive Supreme Court rulings and a spate of death row exonerations, more states are turning to life sentences. Defendants facing a potential death sentence often plead to life; those who go to trial and are convicted are sentenced to life about half the time by juries that are sometimes swayed by the lingering possibility of innocence. As a result the United States is now housing a large and permanent population of prisoners who will die of old age behind bars. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, for instance, more than 3,000 of the 5,100 prisoners are serving life without parole, and most of the rest 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, and the prison recently opened a second cemetery, where simple white crosses are adorned with only the inmate's name and prisoner ID number. Wonder of wonders, it seems that life sentences once are again living up to their name, and are as permanent a punishment as the death sentences they often replace. This is supposed to be a bad thing? At the very least, it's nice to see the hypocrisy of early parole for "life" sentences minimized. Of course, the Times seems to think such practices are unusually cruel, because - wait for it - the Western European view is that twelve years is a long sentence. Fascinatingly, they seem to leave out the fact that several Western European countries, including Britain and Italy, hand down life sentences (whether de facto or de jure) regardless of public opinion: In much of the rest of the world, sentences of natural life are all but unknown. "Western Europeans regard 10 or 12 years as an extremely long term, even for offenders sentenced in theory to life," said James Q. Whitman, a law professor at Yale and the author of "Harsh Justice," which compares criminal punishment in the United States and Europe. Michael H. Tonry, a professor of law and public policy at the University of Minnesota and an expert on comparative punishment, said life without parole was a legal impossibility in much of the world. Mexico will not extradite defendants who face sentences of life without parole. And when Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who tried to kill Pope John Paul II in 1981, was pardoned in 2000, an Italian judge remarked, "No one stays 20 years in prison." Some developing and Islamic nations mete out brutal sanctions, including corporal punishment and mutilation. But if the discussion is limited to very long prison sentences, Professor Tonry said, "we are vastly more punitive than anybody else." Uh-huh. Implications of the moral superiority of Mexican justice (!), and outright equivocation with hand-chopping sharia-spouting madmen - to say nothing of some selective, context-free quotations that could leave the reader with the mistaken impression that the US is the only civilized, modern nation still sentencing the convicted to life without parole. Is it any wonder that legislators, parole board members, and the general public at large might seem increasingly disinclined - if the survey in the lede is accurate - to pay attention to those desperately concerned for the quality of life of aging murderers?


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