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Taking a second look at life imprisonment

A guard stood behind bars near California's Death Row at San Quentin State Prison.REUTERS

Arnie King has been serving a sentence of life without parole in Massachusetts since 1972 for the murder of John Labanara. King was a high school dropout addicted to drugs and alcohol. He was seeking his next high the night he killed Labanara. Over the last 47 years, King has changed his life. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Boston University, has spoken to at-risk youths about making better choices in their lives, and has received awards for his community leadership, including the anti-racism leadership Award from Simmons College. Still, despite the time he has served and his rehabilitation, he has failed to secure a sentence commutation from the governor that would make him eligible for parole.

A recent hearing in the Massachusetts House of Representatives shed light on this little-known aspect of mass incarceration. While there has been a great deal of attention in recent years to the impact of the drug war on growing prison populations, in fact, the main drivers of the prison system now are excessive sentences for violent offenses.


The statistics are troubling. There are as many individuals serving life sentences as the entire state prison population in 1970, and more than half are black or Latino. Of the 2,000 lifers in the state, about half are not eligible for parole. Barring executive clemency, they will die in prison after spending decades behind bars.

Since 90 percent of lifers nationally have been convicted of serious violent crimes, supporters of lifelong incarceration argue that incapacitating such people is an effective crime-control mechanism. In fact, it is the opposite: It is counterproductive for public safety.

Criminologists know that individuals “age out” of crime. Any parent of a teenager understands that misbehavior, often serious, is all too common at this stage. FBI arrest data show that the rate of arrest for teenage boys rises sharply from the mid-teen years through the early 20s but then declines significantly. Arrests for robbery, for example, peak at age 19 but decline by more than half by age 30 and by three-quarters by age 40. The same is true for other violent crimes.


The reason is clear. As teenage boys enter their 20s, they lose their impulsivity, get jobs, find life partners, form families, and generally take on adult roles. Violent behavior becomes less attractive.

For public safety purposes incarcerating people past age 40 produces diminishing returns for crime control; less and less crime is prevented by incapacitation each year.

This impact is magnified by resource tradeoffs. National estimates for the cost of incarcerating an elderly person are at least $60,000 a year, in large part due to the need for health care. With finite public safety resources, these costs are not available to invest in family and community support for the new cohort of teenagers, for whom proactive initiatives could lower the risk of antisocial behavior.

Legislation introduced by Representative Jay Livingstone of Boston and Senator Joe Boncore of Winthrop, along with 34 cosponsors, would help to ameliorate this problem in Massachusetts. Under the bill’s “second look” provision, individuals serving life without parole would be eligible for a parole review after serving 25 years. The logic behind this is that there’s no way of knowing on the date of sentencing what a person will be like two decades hence. Many individuals — like Arnie King — undergo personal transformations while imprisoned. A parole board assessment of a person’s prison record, completion of skills training, and engagement in rehabilitative programming can identify those for whom further imprisonment would be a poor use of resources.


While the nation has become accustomed to “three strikes” sentencing and other legislation that results in life imprisonment, such policies are extreme by world standards. In most Western European nations, sentences of more than 20 years are rare either by statute or in practice. The United States, with just 4 percent of the world’s population, houses more than half of the world’s population of people serving life without parole. Recently, there has been a bipartisan critique of the effects of mass incarceration, particularly on low-income communities of color. State policy makers across the country are exploring ways to reduce excessive prison populations without adverse effects on public safety. The proposed “second look” provision offers one significant alternative. It should be passed.

Nancy Gertner is a senior lecturer at Harvard Law School and a former US District judge. Marc Mauer is executive director of The Sentencing Project and the coauthor of “The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences.”