The irrationality of life sentences and the need to reestablish parole

The New York Times has published a fascinating op-ed on the irrationality of life sentences. (Link) The author, Jennifer Lackey, argues that such sentences prohibit future consideration of the most important information bearing upon the appropriateness of continued incarceration.


For natural life sentences say to all involved that there is no possible piece of information that could be learned between sentencing and death that could bear in any way on the punishment the convicted is said to deserve, short of what might ground an appeal. Nothing. So no matter how much a juvenile is transformed behind bars, and no matter how unrecognizable an elderly prisoner is from his earlier self, this is utterly irrelevant to whether they should be incarcerated. Our absence of knowledge about the future, our ignorance of what is to come, our lack of a crystal ball, is in no way a barrier to determining now what someone’s life ought to be like decades from now.

Moreover, prisoners aren’t the only ones who can change: victims and their families can come to see the convicted as being worthy of forgiveness and a second chance, and public attitudes can evolve, moving away from a zealous “war on crime” approach to one that sees much criminal activity as the result of broader social problems that call for reform. Even if we set aside the other arguments against natural life sentences — economic, legal, moral and so on — the question I want to ask here is this: how is it rational to screen off the relevance of this information? How, that is, is it rational to say today that there can be no possible evidence in the future that could bear on the punishment that a decades­-from-­now prisoner deserves?

Notice that nothing in the epistemic argument here suggests that no prisoners should, in fact, spend the rest of their natural lives behind bars. Instead, the point is that rationality requires that we leave the epistemic door open to acquiring new information. Put bluntly, the argument says that it is irrational for the possibility of parole to be taken off the table at the outset of any sentence.

If Hume is right that “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence,” then our beliefs about the punishment a person deserves at any given time need to be sensitive to the evidence available at that time. But if we screen off huge amounts of potentially relevant information decades before the beliefs about what a prisoner deserves are even formed, then it is impossible for them to be proportioned to the evidence.


The same argument can be made for any lengthy fixed-length sentence. Thus, it is basically an argument for the reestablishment of the parole system. So-called "truth in sentencing" regimes, which ended parole while also increasing punishments for many crimes, have led to the outrageous mass incarceration of our population--with the U.S. having less than 5% of the world's population but nearly 25% of the world's prisoners.

Judges have argued for an ability to review sentences; the US Supreme Court has declared mandatory life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional and made that ruling retroactive; and the president has begun to pardon many people serving lengthy federal sentences. But, at its core, the problem is the lack of a review of the appropriateness of continued imprisionment for those serving lengthy sentences as a matter of course.

If we want a punishments to be proportional and individually tailored, we must recognize the potential for prisoner rehabilitation. Otherwise, a few poor souls may be treated appropriately, but the vast majority of reformed prisoners will continue to serve unnecessary time--costing taxpayers billions in wasteful spending and undermining the dignity of those who have worked hard to reform themselves. In the end, truth in sentences and the end of the parole system has been a failed experiment. We should recognize that failure and reinstitute parole.


Elliot Abrams is a Raleigh criminal defense attorney. He can be reached at (919) 833-3114, or through the contact form here.

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