61 Pages Posted: 13 Nov 2020 Last revised: 15 Apr 2021
Date Written: November 11, 2020
Approximately three decades ago, two of us were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that this sentence, effectively an order to die in prison, represented a legal determination that we were irredeemable. In this article, with insights from our colleague and friend, a human rights scholar, we ask: what does it mean for the law to judge some human beings as incapable of redemption? Isn’t the capacity for change core to the human condition? And shouldn’t the law recognize that all people have an inalienable right to pursue personal redemption?
We marry human rights law with our lived experience to argue that the capacity for redemption is an innate human characteristic. By documenting the dehumanizing effect of codified condemnation and the struggle for humanity after a legal system has deemed you irredeemable, we seek to show why all humans should have a legal right to redemption – a right embedded in the Eighth Amendment through the latent concept of human dignity.
The reading of the Eighth Amendment, we call for, would require a dramatic re-imagination of the U.S. criminal legal system. One that elevates humanity, not deprives it. One that creates opportunities for healing and human development, not denies it. One that forbids a state from making unalterable decisions about the human capacity for redemption. One, in other words, that recognizes that change is always possible.
Keywords: LWOP, Eighth Amendment, cruel and unusual punishment, human dignity, human rights law, European Court of Human Rights, Vinter, Immanuel Kant, Hans Kelsen, life sentence, redemption, right to hope, Miller v. Alabama
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