Issue Date: October 21, 2005
Plight of lifers needs attention
A series of articles in The New York Times examining the fate of those sentenced to life in prison makes for sad if compelling reading. There are now 132,000 people in the United States serving a life sentence, and for all but a tiny few the opportunities for parole are dim to nonexistent. In at least 22 states, lifers have almost no chance of being released, The Times reported in its Oct. 5 article. This is no less true of juvenile criminals serving a life sentence, a population that has risen dramatically in the last decade in U.S. prisons. Only a dozen or so countries give life sentences for juveniles; of the four countries currently incarcerating juvenile prisoners for life, Israel has seven prisoners, South Africa four, Tanzania one and the United States 2,200.
Locking people up and throwing away the key seems to be more and more the American way. The phenomenon owes itself both to opponents of the death penalty who have urged life sentences in lieu of death and to politicians and prosecutors wishing to appear tough on crime.
But in addition to being expensive -- The Times reports that at least $3 billion a year is spent on jailing lifers -- life sentences without parole are in many cases both inhumane and unchristian. Certainly, there are prisoners who may need to be confined for life to protect society. But the articles make clear that many prisoners do not constitute a danger to society and could be released. Many -- up to one-third of lifers -- are in prison for crimes other than murder, including burglary and drug charges. The decline in the number of paroles given to lifers, both because more defendants are now being sentence to life without parole and because parole boards have grown charier of releasing prisoners, means that more and more prisoners are spending all their lives in prison without hope of ever getting out.
At least a few of those prisoners say they would rather be executed than suffer the slow death over decades that life imprisonment amounts to. They point out that people on death row get free lawyers and the attention of the courts. Lifers are not so fortunate.
You dont hear too many religious groups or foreign governments or nonprofit organizations fighting for lifers, said Randy Arroyo, a juvenile lifer who was dismayed when the Supreme Court threw out the juvenile death penalty because he believed that as a lifer he had less hope of leaving prison than he did as a death row inmate.
Religious groups that have focused exclusively on ending the death penalty without considering either the deplorable conditions that exist in some American prisons or the grim fate of those cast into prison with no chance of ever leaving may have acted with the best of intentions, but their success has contributed to a problem that needs to be addressed. More sensible and humane sentences, greater opportunities for parole and better prison conditions should be a Christian cause just as much as abolition of the death penalty.
The penitentiary system takes its name from the word penitence or penitential. A system of justice that does not include the possibility of forgiveness and redemption is not worthy of its name. Not long ago Cardinal Francis George was quoted in these pages as saying that American culture encourages everything and forgives nothing. When it comes to the U.S. penal system, that, unfortunately, seems true.
National Catholic Reporter, October 21, 2005
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