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Some Facts About Life: The Law, Theory, and Practice of Life Sentences

52 Pages Posted: 13 Dec 2015 Last revised: 15 Jan 2016

Melissa Hamilton

University of Surrey School of Law

Date Written: December 13, 2015

Abstract

A diverse band of politicians, justice officials, and academic commentators are lending their voices to the hot topic of correcting the United States’ status as the world’s leader in mass incarceration. There is limited focus, though, upon the special role that life sentences play in explaining the explosion in prison populations and the dramatic rise in costs that result from providing for the increased needs of aging lifers. This Article highlights various ways in which life sentences occupy unique legal and political statuses. For instance, life sentences are akin to capital punishment in likely ending in death within prison environs, yet enjoy few of the added procedural rights and intensity of review that capital defendants command. In contrast to term prisoners, lifers cannot expect to reenter civil society and thus represent an exclusionist ideological agenda. The paper reviews whether life penalties remain justified by fundamental theories of punishment in light of new evidence on retributive values, deterrence effects, and recidivism risk. It also situates life sentences within an international moral imperative that reserves life penalties, if permitted at all, for the most heinous offenders and, in any event, demands period review of all long-term prison sentences.

This article provides a novel perspective, too, by presenting an empirical study in order to further investigate the law and practice of life sentences. Utilizing federal datasets, descriptive statistics and a multiple regression analysis offer important insights. The study makes an original contribution to the literature by exploring the salience of certain facts and circumstances (including demographic, offense-related, and case processing variables) in accounting for life sentence outcomes in the federal system. While some of the attributes of life sentenced defendants are consistent with current expectations, others might be surprising. For example, as expected, sentencing guideline recommendations, the presence of mandatory minimums, and greater criminal history predicted life sentences. Results also supported the existence of a trial penalty. On the other hand, lifers in the federal system were not representative of the most violent offenders or worst recidivists. Life sentences were issued across a variety of violent and nonviolent crimes, and in recent years a substantial percentage presented with minimal criminal histories. Regional disparities in the use of life sentences were also indicated. In concluding, this Article reviews potential remedies to the overreliance upon life penalties in the American justice system.

Keywords: sentencing, life sentences, retribution, deterrence, finality, empirical legal studies, human rights, prisoners, proportionality

JEL Classification: H50, K14, K42

Suggested Citation

Hamilton, Melissa, Some Facts About Life: The Law, Theory, and Practice of Life Sentences (December 13, 2015). 20(3) Lewis & Clark Law Review, 2016, Forthcoming; U of Houston Law Center No. 2016-A-1. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2703072

Melissa Hamilton (Contact Author)

University of Surrey School of Law ( email )

United Kingdom

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