Life Without Parole: An Alternative to the Death Penalty, or a Different Name for the Same Thing?
By Judy Yoo '14
Last Friday and Saturday, the College held a conference called “Life Without Parole: America’s New Death Penalty.” The conference, sponsored by the Charles Hamilton Houston Forum for Law and Social Justice and Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, featured presentations from various accomplished scholars to address questions about the controversies behind life without parole.

Conference speakers included Professors Rachel Barkow (NYU), Paul Robinson (University of Pennsylvania), Josh Bowers (Virginia Law), I. Bennett Capers (Hofstra University), Sharon Dolovich (UCLA Law), Marie Gottschalk (University of Pennsylvania) and Jonathan Simon (UC Berkeley). Harvard professor Charles Ogletree and Professor Austin Sarat, both of whom gave introductions for the event, facilitated discussion.

Despite the heavy material being discussed, the conference carried an encouraging atmosphere. As Ogletree stated, it is sort of like “seeing sausage made.” The conference worked as an editorial board, in which fellow participants offered constructive criticisms, encouragements and questions to refine, challenge and develop the work. Audiences were encouraged not only to ask questions about the work being discussed, but also to correspond by email and share thought-provoking ideas. With that, the participants proceeded, one by one, to address not only the history, justification and consequences of life without parole sentences, but also the ways in which life without parole may be reformed and racial discrimination may be excised from the criminal justice system.

Sarat’s opening quote touched on the controversy central to the nature of a life sentence without parole: “there are a booming amount of prisoners whose only way to escape is through a coffin.”

Over the years, fears about the discretion of judges in criminal sentences and cruelty of capital punishments have fueled many death penalty opponents to offer life without parole or (LWOP) as an alternative sentence. The conference showed, however, that a prison for life sentence without the possibility for release or the reduction of sentence may be worse than death penalty itself.

First up was Henry. In “Ultimate Penalties: Life Without Parole and Other ‘Death in Prison’ Sentences”, Henry argued that life imprisonment, like capital punishment, should be called an ultimate punishment because, like capital punishment, life imprisonment results in death. Using the catchy phrase “death in prison” or “DIP”, Henry calls attention to the frequent and arbitrary imposition of such sentences on criminals who are often undeserving of such heavy punishment. Henry argued that because DIP sentences are so incredibly close to capital punishment in their unique severity and inhumanity, we should give such sentence the same heightened scrutiny we grant to capital punishment.

Barkow addressed the question of the differences offered by LWOP as opposed to a lengthy jail sentence — 40 years. A man in the audience suggested the use of the term “civil death” as opposed to “death in prison” to address the problem of the different possibilities that life without imprisonment can entail.

Gottschalk looked into the ties between financial constraints and the penal system. Recently, the financial crisis has led to expectations that jails will empty as the government can no longer afford to keep prisoners locked up, especially for an extended period of time. True to form, the United States introduced reforms to shrink prison populations. Ironically, however, Gottschalk shows that such reforms have led to negative consequences for people who are serving longer prison sentences and life imprisonment. Government officials and penal reformers have apparently called for loosening the penalties for nonviolent offenders while stiffening the penalties for other offenses. By categorizing some offenders as nonviolent and others as violent, Gottschalk argued, it emphasizes the commitment of violent actors to permanent punishment. This only scratches the surface, however, as such points do not even bring the counterproductivity of lengthy prison sentences into consideration.

The two professors were among the many distinguished scholars who revealed the difficulties and controversies surrounding life without parole. However, despite the wealth of knowledge the scholars all brought to the floor, the conference was undeniably effective in dissecting the punitive system, but also in pushing the audience to think broadly and take new perspectives about the nature of life without imprisonment.

Issue 11, Submitted 2010-12-08 03:36:18