Some years ago, I visited El Manzano, a large prison in Concepción, Chile, and spent time talking with the warden, staff, and inmates. I asked the warden how much time murderers served in his prison. Chuckling, he assured me that he was tough on them, and proudly proclaimed that murderers often serve twenty-five to thirty years. His comment saddened me because a sentence that length pales next to those typically given in the United States. In our approach to life sentences, we are an international outlier. More than two hundred thousand people serve one of three forms of life imprisonment: some have received a life sentence without the possibility of parole; others have an opportunity for parole that may never materialize; still others serve “virtual” life sentences—they have been sentenced to so many years that they will die in prison. Few countries in the world have anything like this sentencing regime.
In their provocative book The Meaning of Life, Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis expose the injustice and senselessness of our current approach to life in prison. The authors work for the Sentencing Project, an organization that collects data about the criminal-justice system, and they draw on their extensive experience to provide a rich empirical analysis of life sentences. A real merit of this book is that interspersed throughout the main text are the voices of inmates and their families; Kerry Myers, a man formerly incarcerated in Louisiana, has compiled their moving stories. We learn about people who made terrible mistakes in their youth that confine them to prison for life. Some killed in reaction to domestic violence or got involved in the illegal drug trade. Many of the inmates educated themselves in prison or developed important relationships. Some ended up being released after decades in prison, while others remain incarcerated.
The authors use sentencing data to mount their case against the life sentence, providing statistics that can be hard to come by in our decentralized and secretive prison systems. They detail the extraordinarily punitive turn that criminal justice took in the 1980s and ’90s. Before that, inmates receiving a life sentence were usually offered opportunities for parole after many years. However, for multiple reasons (increased crime in the 1960s, a “war on drugs,” and racial bias), life-sentence policies became more draconian. States and the federal government enacted “mandatory minimum” sentences that sometimes required life imprisonment. Programming for those serving life sentences dried up, guided by the idea that such inmates didn’t deserve it. Mauer and Nellis detail how opponents of the death penalty sometimes contributed to the drive for life sentences: they advocated for life imprisonment without parole as an alternative to the death penalty, and this resulted in more life sentences.
Like some other contemporary scholars, Mauer and Ellis argue that we cannot reduce our obscenely high incarceration rate without altering the long sentences given to those convicted of violent offenses. Even if we were to release all those sentenced for drug offenses, this dent in the prison population wouldn’t be large enough to change our current situation. Discussing those convicted of violent crimes, Mauer and Nellis maintain that, from a public-safety standpoint, life sentences are irrational. Inmates who spend decades in prison tend to “age out” of crime, and help younger inmates positively change their behavior. In fact, murderers released from prison after many years have a lower recidivism rate than other inmates. Despite this evidence, we continue to hold inmates for their entire lives, causing unnecessary suffering and costing the state a great deal of money. As a result, prison systems will, in coming decades, confront a host of problems related to an aging prison population.