The New York Times:
The Supreme Court ruled last year that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile to life without parole when the crime is short of homicide. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that life without parole shares “some characteristics with death sentences that are shared by no other sentences” in altering “the offender’s life by a forfeiture that is irrevocable.”
The sentence is no less severe when applied to adults. Yet life without parole, which exists in all states (Alaska’s version is a 99-year sentence), is routinely used, including in cases where the death penalty is not in play and where even an ordinary life sentence might be too harsh.
From 1992 to 2008, the number in prison for life without parole tripled from 12,453 to 41,095, even though violent crime declined sharply all over the country during that period. That increase is also much greater than the percentage rise in offenders serving life sentences.
The American Law Institute, a group composed of judges, lawyers and legal scholars, has wisely called for restricting the use of the penalty to cases “when this sanction is the sole alternative to a death sentence.”
The criminal justice system serves two purposes, rehabilitation and the protection of society from dangerous predators. Historically, it’s not very good at the former.
If we reserve sentences of life without parole (LWOP) to cases “when this sanction is the sole alternative to a death sentence” that rules it out for any crime less than murder. Crimes like rape, child molestation, torture and mayhem.
Have you ever heard of Lawrence Singleton?
Lawrence Singleton (July 28, 1927 – December 28, 2001) was an American criminal best known for perpetrating an infamous rape and mutilation of a teenage hitchhiker in California in 1978.
Singleton picked 15-year-old Mary Vincent of Las Vegas up hitchhiking in Berkeley, California, raped her, and then hacked her forearms off with an axe, leaving her to die in a drainage pipe in a gully outside of Modesto, California. She managed to free herself and alert a passerby, who took her to a hospital. By the time Singleton was arrested, Mary was fitted with prosthetic arms.
At Singleton’s trial six months after the assault, Mary faced her assailant and relived the traumatic ordeal in court. Her testimony helped convict him. As she left the witness stand, he swore he would kill her. Although the judge said he wished he could send him to prison for the rest of his natural life, Singleton received a 14-year sentence, the maximum allowed by California law at that time.
Along with the particularly gruesome and callous aspects of the crime, the case became even more notorious after Singleton was paroled after serving only eight years in prison. He was paroled to Contra Costa County, California, but no town would tolerate his presence, so he had to live in a trailer on the grounds of San Quentin.
Singleton returned to his native Florida, where he kept a low profile until the spring of 1997, when a neighbor called police and reported seeing a 69-year old Singleton strangling a nude woman in his house.
When police arrived, they found Singleton drunk with his shirt open and blood smeared over his chest. Inside, police found the nude, bloody corpse of 31-year old prostitute Roxanne Hayes; she had been stabbed seven times in the face and chest.
Singleton cheated the hangman and died of cancer while sitting on Florida’s death row. He was a predator – a monster that looked human. If the first judge got his way Roxanne Hayes would probably still be alive.
I oppose the death penalty, not because I think it is wrong, but because I think the criminal justice system is imperfect and I don’t want the innocent to be wrongfully executed. We can free the wrongfully convicted, but we can’t resurrect the dead.
Monsters like Singleton don’t deserve second chances.