The use of the life without parole (LWOP) penalty is at an unprecedented level in the U.S. Despite the severity of LWOP sentences and the increasing number of inmates serving them, there has been relatively little scholarly research devoted to this population of inmates. The paucity of research is surprising considering that LWOP is the ultimate punishment in nondeath penalty jurisdictions and the penultimate sentence in jurisdictions with the death penalty. As such, the purpose of this research is to describe the emergence of LWOP in the U.S., present a profile of male and female LWOP inmates, synthesize the extant LWOP literature and provide directions for future research in this area.
Since the 1970s, when the correctional philosophy of rehabilitation was heavily criticized, American penal policy has changed substantially (van Zyl Smit, 2002). Examples of the public's and polity's embrace of increasingly punitive crime control legislation include mandatory-minimum sentencing, habitual offender statutes and truth-in-sentencing laws (Aday, 2003: Flanagan, 1995; Mauer, King and Young, 2004). Correctional practices have also changed. One example can be found in the decline of discretionary parole, whereby a parole board determines whether an inmate should be released (Hughes, Wilson and Beck, 2001; Villaume, 2005). LWOP is further evidence of the increased demand for punishment of and protection from offenders. As its name suggests, LWOP inmates are expected to serve their sentences until their deaths.
The number of LWOP states has more than doubled in the past 30 years. In 1982, there were 21 states with LWOP statutes (Stewart and Lieberman. 1982); by 1996, there were 34 states with the sentence (Harries and Cheatwood. 1997). At present, the federal system, the District of Columbia and every state in the nation--except Alaska--authorize the sentence (Abramsky, 2004; A Matter of Life and Death: The Effect of Life-Without-Parole Statutes on Capital Punishment, 2006). New Mexico was the most recent state to introduce LWOP when it abolished capital punishment in 2009 (Associated Press, 2009).
As expected, a positive relationship exists between the number of LWOP states and the number of LWOP inmates. Beginning in the 1980s, the number of LWOP inmates began to steadily rise, and in 2002 reached approximately 34,000 (Appleton and Grver, 2007; Mauer et al., 2004). Since 2002, the number of LWOP inmates has increased an additional 22 percent (Nellis and King. 2009). According to a recent study conducted by The Sentencing Project, there were 140,610 inmates serving life sentences as of 2008. (1) Of these, 41,095 individuals, or 29 percent, were serving LWOP sentences (Nellis and King). When looking at the ratio of LWOP inmates to the total prison population in individual jurisdictions, Louisiana has the highest proportion of LWOP inmates (10.9 percent), followed by Pennsylvania (9.4 percent), Massachusetts (8.7 percent) and Delaware (8.3 percent) (Nellis and King). In comparison, 14 states report a LWOP population of less than 1 percent of the total prison population. (2) Not only is there wide variability in the number of LWOP inmates in each state, but variance also exists in the extent to which the sentences of life with the possibility of parole (LWP) and LWOP are used within each jurisdiction. For example, New York has the second highest percentage of LWP inmates in its prison population (18 percent) in the nation, yet LWOP inmates comprise only 0.3 percent of the state's prison population (Nellis and King).
Not only has there been an increase in the actual number of LWOP inmates, but there also has been an appreciable increase in the proportion of LWOP inmates to the total U.S. prison population. In 1965, less than one-fourth of 1 percent of the prison population in this country was serving a LWOP sentence (Appleton and Grver, 2007). The proportion of LWOP sentences remained stable until about 1974, when the ratio of LWOP inmates to total inmates began to steadily increase, reaching its present day apex of about 3.5 percent of the total prison population (Appleton and Grver).
One of the drawbacks to the lack of research devoted to LWOP inmates is that a national comprehensive profile of this group does not exist. Other than the disproportionate number of minority LWOP inmates (Nellis and King, 2009), there is little known about this group. To begin this line of inquiry, data were extracted from a nationally representative sample of state and federal inmates (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2004). LWOP inmates were underrepresented in the sample, as they account for 1 percent (n = 142) of the total sample (n = 14,499) and, as stated above, LWOP inmates comprise about 3.5 percent of the total prison population in the country (Appleton and Grver, 2007). Nevertheless, the data provide basic information about male and female LWOP inmates. As indicated in Table 1, the typical LWOP inmate is male, nonwhite, middle-aged and had been incarcerated at least once before serving the present sentence. He has served about 11 years of the LWOP sentence, which he received following a conviction for murder or manslaughter. Although a much smaller group, the typical female LWOP inmate mirrors her male counterpart in mean age, time served, offense and the over-representation of inmates of color. However, if is interesting to note that female LWOP inmates were more likely to be first-time inmates compared with their male counterparts.
Table 1. Demographics of Male and Female Life Without Parole Inmates in a Nationally Representative Sample Males Females n = 131 n = 11 Race/Ethnicity White non-Hispanic 40.5% 45.5% Black non-Hispanic 50.4 27.3 Multiple Race non-Hispanic 2.3 27.3 Hispanic 6.1 0 American Indian or Native non-Hispanic 0.8 0 Age Range 21-77 26-54 Mean 41.3 39.0 Time Served (in years) Range 0-39 3-21 Mean 10.8 10.6 Offense Murder/Manslaughter 70.2% 90.9% Armed Robbery 15.3 9.1 Rape/Sexual Assault 6.9 0 Kidnapping 1.5 0 Aggravated Assault 0.8 0 Burglary 0.8 0 Drug Offense 2.3 0 Weapon Offense 0.8 0 Parole Violation 0.8 0 Morals/Decency Offense 0.8 0 Prior Incarceration 55.8% 18.2% The Use of Life Without Parole in the U.S.
Professor Derral Cheatwood (1988) observed that there are two forms of LWOP statutes with each targeting a distinct type of offenders: the habitual offender and the offender who has committed a serious crime. LWOP penalties for habitual offenders "reflect a progressive public dissatisfaction with increasing crime rates or perceptions of judicial or correctional leniency," while LWOP statues for serious offenses are "legislated quickly and often rather abruptly, characteristically in response to a particular murder or other heinous criminal act, and commonly through the action of a particular person or small group of people." In other words, the sentence of LWOP is used not only to guarantee the incapacitation of repeat offenders, but to ensure a perpetrator of a serious crime receives a sentence proportionate to the harm caused (Abramsky; Cheatwood; Cunningham and Sorensen; Stewart and Lieberman; Welch, 1987; Wright, 1990). As a result, a wide range of offenses are eligible for a LWOP sentence, including murder, kidnapping, sexual assault/rape, robbery, drug offenses and, for repeat offenders, an array of felonies could trigger a LWOP sentence under habitual offender statutes (Abramsky, 2004; Cheatwood, 1988; Cunningham and Sorensen, 2006; Hassine, 2009; Stewart and Lieberman, 1982; Wright, 1990).
LWOP was designed to eliminate the discretion of parole officials who have been criticized for being overly lenient and releasing life-sentenced inmates prior to serving an appropriate amount of time (Cheatwood, 1988; Mauer et al., 2004; Stewart and Lieberman, 1982). For instance, in 1982, the average time served for a life sentenced inmate who was released was less than eight years (Minor-Harper and Greenfeld, 1985). By 2004, the average length of a life sentence had risen to approximately 29 years (Mauer et al.). A LWOP sentence virtually guarantees that habitual offenders will serve the remainder of their lives incarcerated, a permanent form of incapacitation.
While commutation and pardon are theoretically means by which LWOP inmates could obtain release, they rarely occur. The state of California illustrates this point: There have been more than 2,500 inmates who have received LWOP sentences in California during the past 30 years; no sentence has been commuted (Sundby, 2005). The miniscule chance of release underscores why politicians, such as former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, have referred to the LWOP sentence as "death by incarceration" (Medland and Fischer, 1990).
In addition to its use as a punishment for habitual offenders, the other primary use of a LWOP sentence is as an alternative to the death penalty. Because of its punitive nature but also its arguable respect for human life, LWOP is supported by both "tough on crime" proponents and death penalty abolitionists (Abramsky, 2004; Sheleff, 1987; Stewart and Lieberman, 1982; Welch, 1987; Wright, 1990). The attractiveness of LWOP has contributed to the decline in the number of death penalty sentences, as reflected in the following statement: "Life without parole has been absolutely crucial to whatever progress has been made against the death penalty. ... The drop in death sentences--from 320 in 1996 to 125 last year [in 2004]--would not have happened without LWOP" (Liptak, 2005).
J.H. Wright Jr. (1990) classified the various sentencing systems that use LWOP as a sentencing option in capital cases. In a triple-tiered system, whereby three sentencing options are available, jurors select between death, LWOP and LWP or alternatively between the options of death, LWOP for a fixed number of years of parole ineligibility (e.g., 25 years) and LWP. In a double-tiered system, the prescribed punishments include death or LWOP, death or a fixed term of...