There has been more than a five-fold increase in the number of life sentences in the United States over the past four decades. One in seven prisoners in the United States is serving a life (or virtual) life sentence. This amounts to over 200,000 prisoners. The increase has occurred against the backdrop of near universal condemnation by scholars and public policy advocates – many of whom are now advocating for the abolition of life sentences. Arguments that life sentences are not an effective deterrent or means of protecting the community have some merit. Yet, we argue that in a limited range of circumstances, penalties of life imprisonment are appropriate. The proportionality principle commands that the devastating consequences of certain crimes are punishable by a permanent loss of liberty. Any lesser form of punishment fails to acknowledge the suffering inflicted by the crime and the loss experienced by the victim. First-degree murder mandates no lesser punishment. The reforms in this Article, while justifying some life terms and enhancing the integrity of the sentencing system, would paradoxically reduce the number of prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment in the United States by over 60% given that life terms for all other offenses should be abolished. The same rationale that justifies life imprisonment for first-degree murder also requires that lesser forms of punishments are imposed for all other crimes – life in prison is too harsh given the seriousness of all other offenses.
Mirko Bagaric and Jennifer Svilar,
A (Partial and Principled) Defense of Sentences of Life Imprisonment,
70 Clev. St. L. Rev.
available at https://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/clevstlrev/vol70/iss4/5