“A Fair-Minded Society Should Revisit Life Sentences”

The New York Times has a nice editorial today criticizing overuse of life without parole.  The editorial endorses the ALI’s position that LWOP should be restricted to cases in which it is the sole alternative to the death penalty.  The Times also supports the ALI’s view that life sentences should be revisited after 15 years (which is what is done already in Germany).

There are parallels to this reasoning in an article that I am working on right now that presents a new argument for good time (credits toward early release earned by virtue of good conduct in prison).  I contend that good conduct in prison can be thought of as a way that an offender atones for his crimes, and that atonement ought to be recognized and rewarded by the criminal-justice system:

A failure to recognize atonement would itself communicate unsuitable messages about the offender and the community. Communicative punishment is premised on the moral agency of the offender—the offender’s capacity to listen to and be swayed by the community’s censure. But to discount indications that the offender has already recognized the need for atonement seems contrary to this premise. As Radzik puts it, “Not to recognize and nurture moral progress is to deny moral agency.” She worries, moreover, that an inability to respond favorably to atonement reflects a view about the indestructability of wrongdoing that is corrosive of social trust and cooperation. Carried to an extreme, an unrelenting severity in punishment may produce even more anxiety and prove even more socially immobilizing than a persistent and unwarranted lenience in punishment.

Life Sentences in Germany

The American penal system is plagued by a lack of coherent purposes and clear institutional accountability.  If we were interested in a model for how to do things better, Germany might be a good candidate.  I’m no expert on the German system, but I’ve just read with great interest a new paper on the way that Germany manages its life sentences.  The paper, authored by Dirk van Zyl Smit and entitled “Release From Life Imprisonment: A Comparative Note on the Role of Pre-Release Decision Making in England and Germany,” appears as a chapter in Fervet Opus: Liber Amicorum Anton van Kalmthout (Marc Groenhuijsen et al. eds., 2010).

Although the paper particularly focuses on a fascinating 2009 decision by the Federal Constitutional Court, it also provides some useful background information on the the legal framework for life sentences in Germany.  Here are some features that stand out for me.   Continue reading “Life Sentences in Germany”

The Beginning of the End for Life Without Parole?

That question is the title of a new paper I’ve just uploaded to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This essay introduces a new issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter that is devoted to different aspects of the sentence of life without parole. An important question raised by many of the articles is whether LWOP, after two decades of explosive growth, is entering a period of decline. For instance, the Supreme Court declared LWOP unconstitutional for most juvenile offenders in May 2010, possibly inaugurating an era of more meaningful constitutional limitations on very long sentences. Additionally, many cash-strapped states have been developing new early-release programs in order to reduce corrections budgets, some of which hold out hope even for LWOP inmates. This essay considers the likelihood that these and other recent developments will contribute to a decline in LWOP. In the end, none of the developments portend dramatic changes, at least regarding LWOP for adult offenders, although it is possible that LWOP will undergo a period of slow, long-term decline, much as has occurred with the death penalty. After laying out this perspective, the essay then considers whether the United States ought to welcome such a period of decline.

The LWOP issue of FSR, which I edited, has just come out in print.   Continue reading “The Beginning of the End for Life Without Parole?”

State Legislatures Continue to Grapple With Corrections Budgets

I’ve just read the National Conference of State Legislatures’ new E-Bulletin on developments in sentencing and corrections policy. The dominant theme continues to be fiscal pressures and the need to rein in corrections spending.  States across the country are emphasizing community-based alternatives to imprisonment and enhanced services and release opportunities for inmates.  Here are some highlights from the first half of 2010:   Continue reading “State Legislatures Continue to Grapple With Corrections Budgets”