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Friday, February 11, 2011

Life Without Parole

According to a New York Times survey, the number of lifers has almost doubled in the last decade, to 132,000. Historical data on juvenile offenders is incomplete. But among the 18 states that can provide data from 1993, the juvenile lifer population rose 74 percent in the next decade.

Prosecutors and representatives of crime victims applaud the trend. The prisoners, they say, are paying the minimum fit punishment for their terrible crimes.

But even supporters of the death penalty wonder about this state of affairs.

"Life without parole is a very strange sentence when you think about it," said Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School. "The punishment seems either too much or too little. If a sadistic or extraordinarily cold, callous killer deserves to die, then why not kill him? But if we are going to keep the killer alive when we could otherwise execute him, why strip him of all hope?"

Burl Cain, the warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, which houses thousands of lifers, said older prisoners who have served many years should be able to make their cases to a parole or pardon board that has an open mind. Because all life sentences in Louisiana are without the possibility of parole, only a governor's pardon can bring about a release.

The prospect of a meaningful hearing would, Mr. Cain said, provide lifers with a taste of hope.

"Prison should be a place for predators and not dying old men," Mr. Cain said. "Some people should die in prison, but everyone should get a hearing."

Television and Boredom

In interviews, lifers said they tried to resign themselves to spending down their days entirely behind bars. But the prison programs that once kept them busy in an effort at training and rehabilitation have largely been dismantled, replaced by television and boredom.

The lot of the lifer may be said to be cruel or pampered, depending on one's perspective. "It's a bleak imprisonment," said W. Scott Thornsley, a former corrections official in Pennsylvania. "When you take away someone's hope, you take away a lot."

It was not always that way, said Steven Benjamin, a 56-year-old Michigan lifer.

"The whole perception of incarceration changed in the 1970's," said Mr. Benjamin, who is serving a sentence of life without parole for participating in a robbery in 1973 in which an accomplice killed a man. "They're dismantling all meaningful programs. We just write people off without a second thought."

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