Debra J. Saunders

The problem is: I can't trust a report with five tables dissecting the racial and ethnic makeup of inmates -- 48 percent are black, 33 percent are white and 14 are Latino -- but not a single chart that tells me what exactly America's 140,000-plus inmates did to earn their life sentences. Nellis and co-author Ryan S. King think it is wrong that one in 11 prisoners is serving a sentence of life or LWOP, but they don't provide information that indicates whether one of 11 inmates is seriously dangerous and belongs behind bars.

"We didn't have access to the crimes that were committed," Nellis told me, although she conceded "most" inmates serving LWOP sentences "are in for murder."

In that the Sentencing Project has had no problem coming up with statistics on draconian sentences that reveal the undeniable and outrageous excesses of America's war on drugs, I don't think the researchers tried too hard. When the statistics bolster their argument, they find them.

Don't worry about the Charlie Mansons of the world, Nellis told me, as they never will be paroled. And she stressed this important point: "We don't believe that everyone should get parole. We think everyone should have the opportunity for parole."

As the report argued, "Life-without-parole sentences are costly, shortsighted and ignore the potential for transformative personal growth."

This may surprise some readers (as they know I believe in the death penalty), but I do not believe the criminal justice system should rob the repentant of the opportunity for transformative personal growth. I believe convicted killers can atone -- but they should do so from within their prison cells.

And they can repent on Death Row. "No Exit" cites the American Law Institute's support for "elimination of life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty." But it's clear advocates don't want an alternative.

Given their objections to life sentences, if California or the federal government ever discards the death penalty, all the money that gets sucked into fueling bogus death-penalty appeals simply will move to bankroll anti-LWOP appeals.

To the extent that appeals might help an innocent prisoner, that would be fine. But if you follow these issues, you know that the most unrepentant sociopaths will exploit any opening.

Think Kevin Cooper, who killed chiropractors Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old houseguest in 1983 after he escaped from the California Institution for Men at Chino, where he was serving time under a phony name for burglary. DNA evidence has proved Cooper's guilt -- yet from Death Row, he still finds lawyers who will ignore the evidence, change Cooper's story and assert that he is not guilty.

Think convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal, -- who was shot in the chest by Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner -- and found at the crime scene with the gun and identified by four eyewitnesses as Faulkner's killer. To this day, supporters argue that he is a "political prisoner."

End the death penalty, and these violent con artists could be the first to walk -- and it won't be transformative growth for society.

Debra J. Saunders

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