why isn't a life sentence for life?

Something I’ve always wondered about:

I believe a ‘life’ sentence is actually about fifty years or so. Why isn’t it ‘in prison until death’?

I don’t think the so-called life sentence is usually even as long as fifty years. I think it varies from state to state, but I have the impression that some states do not have anything that is actually a life sentence. Instead, it’s called 25-to-life, and the person does not actually serve the whole 25. In those states that do have an actual life sentence, it’s usually called “life without possibility of parole”. Apearently, one has to specify that one does really mean “life”.

I’m against the death penalty, but I think we do need an actual life sentence.

Daerlyn, since you’re posting from Canada, I’ll reply using the Canadian law. USMMV.

First, to aid in the discussion, here’s how the law works. Under the Criminal Code of Canada, the penalty for murder is a life sentence. If convicted of 1st degree, the accused is ineligible for parole for 25 years. If convicted of 2nd degree, the period of parole ineligibility is 10 years, with the possiblity of the judge increasing it, up to a maximum of 25 years.

Note that it’s a period of parole ineligibility - it doesn’t mean they’re automatically out at the end of that time. They have to go before the parole board and make the case why they should be released. The board takes into account what they did, their mental state at the time and currently, how they’ve behaved in prison, and any other relevant factors. There is no presumption of remission for life sentences, unlike sentences for fixed terms. For certain individuals, based on what they did, I doubt very much that they could ever make parole - they’re in prison until they die.

Another point is that if a lifer makes parole, it does not mean that he’s just released and that’s it. He’s still under a sentence and is only released on conditions. For the rest of his life, he has to comply with the conditions set by the parole board. Breach those conditions, and he can be back in the prison automatically. That’s an aspect of it being a life sentence - even if not in prison, the lifer is under the control of the parole board for the rest of his life.

Now, to reply to your question as to why we take this approach. There’s a few reasons.

First, this system was put in place upon the formal abolition of the death penalty in the mid-seventies. By that time, it had been over 10 years since someone had actually been executed in Canada. The federal government had evolved a practice of commuting most death penalties to life sentences, and on average those lifers had been released through the parole process after between 10 and 20 or so years. So, the new life sentence provisions brought the law into line with what had become the practice. (The new law may actually have stiffened the parole process somewhat, by fixing the ineligibiity period for 1st degree at 25 years, which would have been at the high end of the average period that lifers had actually been serving.)

Second, there’s the sentencing philosophy of Canadian law. The Criminal Code, s. 718, sets out a variety of factors underlying our sentencing system, but I would boil it down to denouncing the offence, protecting the community, and recognizing the potential for rehabilitation of the offender. That’s a complex balancing act, and to implement it, there must be discretion built into the system. Given the severity of the offence of murder, parole ineligibilities are set very high, with the onus on the offender to demonstrate his eligibility. That also is a factor for the protection of the community - what is the likelihood that this person will commit further crimes? The possibility of parole provides an incentive to the offender to rehabilitate himself, and for the state to recognise that the offender has done so, in appropriate cases.

Third is the idea of graduated release, common to all parole systems. This is based on the idea that it is best to release an offender gradually, both to assist the offender to re-integrate into the community, and to monitor his progress. Parole typically starts with day passes, moves up to half-way houses, and so on. Under this system, a lifer is never completely free. Even if they are released from prison, they are subject to supervision for the rest of their lives.

Now, whether you agree with this approach or not, I would say is a matter for GD.

Morgan Freeman says in Shawshank Redemption:

“They say it’s a life sentence. And that’s exactly what they take…your life…the part of it that’s worth something, anyway.”

Do they still dump geriatric lifers out of the system, as portrayed in Shawshank Redemption?

Why isn’t a life sentence for life?

I’ve always heard there were two major reasons…(1) rehabilitation and (2) when there is no possibility of parole, the in-prison society becomes more difficult to control because the lifer has nothing to lose.

Sometimes older prisoners are paroled or have their sentences commuted because their health is so poor, they are not a threat to anyone.

Being a prisoner does not immunize you from getting cancer, strokes, Alzheimer’s etc.

It’s also a lot cheaper for the taxpayers to dump a lifer with severe illnesses out into the real world than to continue to incarcerate them and have to pay for their care.

The other side of the coin is that we have some individuals who were sentenced to “life” who will be free and among us soon, and who are almost certian to be back at their old game. Serial killers Harv “The Hammer” Carignan (sp?) and Coral Watts are, AFAIK, going to get out of jail directly because “life” doesn’t mean the rest of one’s natural life where they reside. It’s this kind of thing that makes many US residents very strong proponents of the death penalty.

Please correct me if I am wrong about the above-mentioned individuals. I really want to be wrong about them, but I relay here what I’ve heard on the news.