Among the many aspects of the criminal justice system amenable to criticism, "life sentence without the possibility of parole" ("LWOP") has received particular attention recently, principally due to claims about its increased use. LWOP was conceived decades ago as a substitute for the death penalty. Consequently, while capital punishment wanes in the United States, a steadily increasing number of defendants is sentenced to LWOP. The surge in LWOP sentences has attracted critical attention. For example, a recent ACLU Report, critical of LWOP, asserts that "over 3,000 of the 50,000 inmates serving LWOP were convicted of nonviolent offenses."
Such a claim, of course, is empirical and warrants closer examination. Craig Lerner (George Mason) undertook such an examination and subjected the ACLU's claim to data. In Who's Really Sentenced to Life Without Parole?: Searching for 'Ugly Disproportionalities' in the American Criminal Justice System, Lerner contributes to this debate by reporting findings from "every inmate sentenced to LWOP in eight states." While limited to the sample of eight states, his key findings are summarized in the excerpted abstract.
"... In a few states, it is impossible to find a single inmate sentenced to LWOP for any crime other than murder or the most serious violent crimes. Even in jurisdictions that impose LWOP for crimes labeled “nonviolent,” the inmates are few in number and often present aggravating factors, such as extensive criminal histories or previous violent crimes. Inevitably, criminals sentenced to LWOP will vary in culpability, and some will appear not to merit this punishment. Drawing attention to their plight can spur executive clemency in individual cases. But accusations that the American legal system is rife with “ugly disproportionalities,” at least insofar as this claim is applied to LWOP sentences in the states, appear to have little merit.... Even in jurisdictions that impose LWOP for crimes labeled 'nonviolent,' the inmates are few in number and often present aggravating factors, such as extensive criminal histories or previous violent crimes."