Doors Closing for Lifers—Again

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Doors Closing for Lifers—Again

Newspaper editorial

By: Staff

Date: October 17, 2005

Source: "Editorial: Doors Closing for Lifers—Again." San Francisco Chronicle, October 17, 2005, 〈〉 (accessed January 31, 2006).

About the Author: The San Francisco Chronicle is the largest newspaper in northern California, with a daily circulation of over 500,000. It was founded in 1865 by Charles and Michael de Young and is currently owned by Hearst Communications.


The concept of a life sentence varies from country to country, as well as from state to state in the United States. Since the "tough on crime" (TOC) laws were enacted in the 1970s, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of persons serving sentences in jails and prisons across America. In conjunction with the TOC legislation, another concept, called truth in sentencing (TIS), has been implemented. TIS involves setting specific sentences for particular crimes, with consideration of the circumstances surrounding them. TIS laws mandate that perpetrators of violent crimes serve a minimum of eighty-five percent of the original sentence before they are eligible for parole. The philosophy underlying both of these types of legislation is that they will act as deterrents for criminals, particularly for those who contemplate committing the most serious of felonies (murder, rape, large-scale drug trafficking, etc.). In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data support this notion. There has been an overall decrease in murders, sexual assault, and robberies involving the use of a weapon, since these types of legislation were first enacted in the late 1970s.

In general, there are two types of criminal sentences involving actual jail or prison terms—indeterminate and determinate. The judge imposing an indeterminate sentence sets a minimum, and sometimes a maximum, period of prison time to be served, but leaves a wide range in which the actual time served will be determined. An example of an indeterminate sentence for a repeat offense of vehicular manslaughter while under the influence of alcohol might involve sentencing the convicted felon to the state penitentiary for a period of not less than eight but not more than thirty years. A determinate sentence, on the other hand, sets a specific incarceration period. For example, giving a convicted felon a mandatory period of ninety days in the county jail for a second offense of driving while intoxicated is a determinate sentence.

There are several justifications for sending a person to prison: 1) to protect the general population by removing a person who presents a threat to the community until such time as he is no longer deemed a danger; 2) to act as a deterrent to future crimes both for the convicted felon and for others in the community; 3) to give the convicted felon an opportunity to make significant life changes in order to shift from a criminal lifestyle by offering tools such as education and job training; 4) to exact punishment based on the nature of the offense. On the other hand, some members of the public believe that prison time is most effective at creating better criminals. Those who hold this viewpoint maintain that spending years in the company of other convicted offenders in prisons or jails in which there is little or no educational or vocational training only serves to create a subculture of institutionalization. Rather than molding individuals who will have a keen desire to return to society as productive citizens, prison is believed by some to create a "thug mentality" and a belief that a criminal lifestyle is not only desirable, but preferable to the low-paying, low-status job that might be the only apparent available option for a person who has a criminal record. Many convicted offenders come from families with multi-generational cultures of incarceration or criminality—many relatives may have "done time." The offender's neighbors, friends, and acquaintances also may have spent time in prison. When there is a cultural norm of incarceration, its deterrent effect is diminished, and it may be perceived as either desirable—relatively safe and secure—or familiar—a place where the offender knows the rules and fits in.


Earlier this year, we commended Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for being willing to grant parole to a greater number of the state's expanding lifer population than his predecessors.

In 2004, he agreed to release 73 lifers recommended for parole by the Board of Prison Terms, recently renamed the Board of Parole Hearings. Although still a tiny fraction of the lifer population, in a single year Schwarzenegger released 12 times more of them than Gov. Gray Davis did during his five years in office. Most had been convicted of first- or second-degree murder decades earlier.

Only 3,168 of California inmates serving life sentences are true lifers. They're the ones sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The other 27,251 are serving "indeterminate" life sentences. That means that after serving a fixed portion of their sentence—10, 15, 25 years and so on—they are supposed to be given a chance of parole by convincing a historically tough-on-crime parole board that they are fully rehabilitated and deserve to be released.

Yet, Schwarzenegger seems to be backing off on his bold attempt to reduce the state's lifer population, which now constitutes 1 in 4 of all inmates serving life sentences in the nation, at a cost of about $1 billion a year to the California taxpayer. Through Sept. 30 of this year, he agreed to release 29 inmates of the 148 forwarded to him by the parole board, almost all of whose members he appointed. At this rate, he will have released just over half as many inmates in 2004 as in 2005.

These are inmates who, over a period of many years, have participated in a range of programs that have forced them to take responsibility for their crimes. More importantly, they have persuaded parole commissioners—none of whom can be written off as a liberal do-gooder—that they are no longer dangerous.

By contrast, non-lifer inmates serving lesser sentences, who make up the vast majority of California's overflowing prison population, are released automatically on completion of their sentences, without having to convince anyone that they are prepared for life in mainstream society. That's why two-thirds end up back in prison within three years of being released.

The apparent retreat by Schwarzenegger on releasing inmates who have committed capital crimes is undermining his public declaration that "rehabilitation" should be a major focus of the state's correctional system. In July, he even changed the name of the Department of Corrections to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "Especially at San Quentin, a flagship prison in regards to rehabilitation, you have scores of men coming who, by any set of criteria, are suitable for parole," said Father Steven Barber, the Catholic chaplain at San Quentin State Prison.

"We're not lacking in empathy for victims," said Barber. But at some point, the pain inmates have inflicted on victims and their families "has to be balanced against the number of years someone has to serve paying for it," he said. "When the punishment is satisfied, the next step in a healthy society is forgiveness, a kind of absolution."

A spokesperson for Schwarzenegger denied that his decisions regarding lifers have anything to do with politics. "The governor makes parole decisions on a case-by-case basis, bearing in mind first and foremost what is in the best interests of public safety," a spokesperson told us. But we suspect that the downward trend might be linked to Schwarzenegger's sliding popularity and the backlash his actions provoked from victims' rights groups allied with the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents prison guards and other prison personnel.

Earlier this year, Crime Victims United of California ran a series of television ads attacking Schwarzenegger for allegedly releasing dangerous criminals. Shortly after the ads were aired, the CCPOA staged an emotional rally on the steps of the state Capitol in April. On every side of the crowd were wall-sized displays of photos of victims of violent crime in California. "Perhaps the governor has listened to some of our concerns," said Harriet Salerno, president of Crime Victims United.

Schwarzenegger's reversal of most of the parole board's recommendations has implications far beyond an individual inmate. It sends a discouraging message to inmates—that no matter how hard they work at rehabilitating themselves, they're unlikely ever to leave prison. "It becomes harder for us to inspire inmates and to serve public safety from the inside," says Jacques Verduin, executive director of the Insight Prison Project, which offers a range of classes in San Quentin for lifers and other inmates.

The law clearly gives lifers serving indeterminate sentences the chance to earn their release. Instead, says Keith Wattley, a staff attorney at the Prison Law Office in San Francisco, "what we have is a law that holds out the illusion of redemption, but in fact denies people any fair chance of living in a free society."

There is no avoiding the serious, often horrific, nature of the crimes committed by every lifer. But what happened dozens of years ago can't be changed. What can change is the inmate. Until Californians can accept that even a murderer can transform himself or herself, our lifer population will continue to grow, hidden in prisons filled with aging and infirm inmates who no longer threaten our safety.


Persons given life sentences may be imprisoned for the remainder of their natural lives without any possibility of parole. At other times, "life" can be part of an indeterminate sentence and may imply the possibility of parole at some future time, as in a sentence of "thirty years to life" for first-degree murder. A third category of life sentencing—generally called "virtual life" or "natural life"—refers to a sentence that so far exceeds the likely lifespan of the offender that parole is not possible. At times, persons are given life sentences, either with or without the possibility of future parole, as a means of avoiding the imposition of the death penalty. In the state of California, a law popularly referred to as "three strikes and you're out," imposes a mandatory life sentence on repeat offenders who are convicted of a third adjudicated offense. In some cases, all three offenses are considered "minor" felonies involving property or other non-violent crimes. Statistics published by the Sentencing Project, as well as by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, indicate that nearly ten percent of the U.S. prison population (both federal and state) is serving a life sentence. Of those, more than twenty-five percent are serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole (in several states, all life sentences are for life without parole). This percentage has risen by nearly ten percent since the early 1990s. These statistics present an interesting dichotomy in that the incidence of reported violent crimes has decreased, while the rates at which convicted felons are receiving life sentences have increased considerably over the past two decades.

Parole boards are responsible for weighing all of the factors in an individual situation and making the fairest possible decision based upon all available information. For those with indeterminate life sentences, the possibility of return to the community is decided by a parole board, based on positive changes made by the inmate while in prison, successful efforts at rehabilitation and, perhaps, efforts to make restitution for the crime. Parole boards also consider the nature of the offender's crime, the feelings and beliefs of community members (particularly those of the victim(s) or the victim's family), the potential danger to society posed by the offender's release, the probability of lasting rehabilitation, and financial issues. The financial issues under consideration involve the expense of housing a prisoner for many decades and the increasing costs associated with the incarceration of elderly and sick prisoners.

The changes in sentencing legislation during the final decades of the twentieth century resulted in a marked increase in the amount of time that "lifers" must serve before they are eligible for parole—from about twenty-one years to an average of thirty years. These sentencing changes have led to demographic changes in the prison population as well. The number of inmates over the age of fifty in both federal and state prisons is increasing as a result of the imposition of longer prison terms.

Almost all individuals who receive sentences that approximate the duration of their natural lives have been convicted of heinous crimes; most of the felonies are violent, and the vast majority involve murder (either first- or second-degree), sexual assault, or rape. Many involve the use of weapons or resulted in great bodily harm in some way. Some of the more controversial life sentences are given to individuals who were considered conspirators or co-conspirators in the crime committed. In the case of an accessory (one who assisted in the mechanics or planning) to a crime or conspiracy, advocates would argue that this person might never have been violent and does not pose a future threat of violence to society.

There have been several, largely anecdotal, studies of the rate of recidivism among individuals paroled after serving lengthy sentences. The re-arrest rates were found to be extremely low. This is thought to be due to several factors. First, the decades spent in prison are likely to be an extremely effective deterrent to re-offending. Second, inmates may have learned marketable skills while incarcerated to transfer to the workplace outside prison. Third, individuals may have outgrown criminal or gang affiliations from their youths and matured to the point that a life of crime is no longer appealing. Fourth, these individuals may simply be too old or too infirm to be efficient criminals. One approach to effective sentencing would be the creation of a formula that determines the ideal mix of incarceration, education, and training in order to sharply reduce recidivism without costing the state and federal governments excessive amounts of money to build and staff prisons to house "lifers."



Gainsborough, Jenny, and Marc Mauer. Diminishing Returns: Crime and Incarceration in the 1990s. Washington, D.C.: The Sentencing Project, 2000.

King, Ryan S., and Marc Mauer. Aging Behind Bars: Three Strikes Seven Years Later. Washington, D.C.: The Sentencing Project, 2001.

Mauer, Marc, Ryan S. King, and Malcolm C. Young. The Meaning of "Life": Long Prison Sentences in Context. Washington, D.C.: The Sentencing Project, 2004.

Web sites

U.S. Department of Justice. Bureau of Justice Statistics. "Criminal Sentencing Statistics." 〈〉 (accessed February 8, 2006).

U.S. Department of Justice. Bureau of Justice Statistics. "Reentry Trends in the United States." 〈〉 (accessed February 8, 2006).