Debra J. Saunders

Because courts can sentence murderers to life without parole, why not get rid of the death penalty? It's a frequent question posed by readers and advocates who oppose the death penalty. For years, my answer has been: If death-penalty opponents ever succeed in eliminating capital punishment, their next target for elimination will be life without parole -- or as lawyers call it, LWOP.

As if to prove my point, the Sentencing Project just released a report, "No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America," which advocated for -- you guessed it -- the elimination of LWOP. The report also lamented that governors and parole boards are not paroling more prisoners serving life (with parole) sentences.

The death penalty still stands, and already opponents are trying to shave the only alternative sentence that ostensibly protects the general public from the most dangerous predators.

(I say ostensibly in view of the fact of that California's last lethal-injection recipient, Clarence Ray Allen, chose to aid his legal appeal by ordering the murder of eight witnesses while he served a life sentence in prison for murder. An accomplice killed three innocent people before he was caught.)

The Sentencing Project is a national organization that works to promote alternatives to incarceration. Ashley Nellis, one of the authors, told me that the Sentencing Project opposes both the death penalty and LWOP. She is aware that getting rid of LWOP would remove a common argument in favor of ending capital punishment. But: "Both of those sentences are problematic because they offer no hope for release -- and basically say that certain people are unredeemable. They have no incentive to try to turn their lives around."

Clearly there is a schism between how the Sentencing Project and your average juror looks at felony murder. Juries sentence violent criminals to death or life behind bars because they see certain crimes as so brutal that they must be punished severely.

The 48-page report addressed LWOP and the fact that "it has become increasingly difficult for persons serving a life sentence to be released on parole." It lamented the fact that governors are decreasingly likely to heed parole board recommendations to release convicts and unabashedly called for an end to juvenile LWOP sentences.

Debra J. Saunders

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