Reformers Target Life Imprisonment and Sentences of Life Without Parole

Vermont and Massachusetts legislation would abolish life without parole sentences, while other states consider that reform for minors

Daniel Nichanian

Proponents of criminal justice reform are aiming to curtail life imprisonment in Vermont. New legislation (House Bill 382) would abolish sentences of life without the possibility of parole and replace them with sentences of 25-to-life, which would make incarcerated individuals eligible for parole after 25 years of incarceration.

“It’s inconsistent with our values to lock people up and throw away the key,” said Tom Dalton, the executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, a group that supports this bill. “We have an ethical and moral obligation to not incarcerate people beyond reasonable punishment. I think that decades in prison is significant penalty, and it’s a value judgment that after decades of punishment it’s reasonable to assess whether someone can safely be released to their community.” Dalton emphasized that this bill would not create a guarantee of release, but rather “an opportunity to go in front of the parole board and have an individual assessment.”

The legislation also targets virtual life sentences, namely sentences that are handed for a finite duration or that technically permit parole but with an eligibility for release that is so far into the future as to make it meaningless in the context of a human life span. “You might not be able to get in front of the parole board before life expectancy,” Dalton said.

Massachusetts lawmakers have also introduced legislation to end life without parole sentences, and to make individuals serving life sentences eligible for parole after 25 years (bills S.826 and H.3358).

If Vermont or Massachusetts adopted such proposals, they would be the first state to effectively bar life without parole sentences. All states but Alaska allow sentences of life without parole, and Alaska’s 99-year sentence is the functional equivalent. Last year, Pennsylvania state Senator Sharif Street launched a similar push by proposing that people serving a life sentence should be eligible for parole, but his bill did not move forward.

A report published by the Sentencing Project in 2017 documented the nationwide growth of life and virtual life sentences, which have been the target of recent litigation. Take the case of Arthur Franklin, who was 17 at the time of non-homicide offenses for which he received three concurrent 1,000-year sentences in Florida. While these sentences came with the possibility of parole, the state’s Parole Commission calculated that his parole year was 2352. Franklin challenged this on the grounds that this timeline made his punishment indistinguishable from life without parole and that it was thus unconstitutional; the U.S. Supreme Court held in Graham v. Florida in 2010 that juveniles cannot serve life without parole for crimes other than homicide. But the Florida Supreme Court rejected Franklin’s petition in November, ruling that “because Franklin’s sentences include eligibility for parole there is no violation of the categorical rule announced in Graham.” “There is no indication that Franklin has even a chance of being released before the end of his natural life expectancy,” Justice Barbara Pariente wrote in dissent. 

The details of the Vermont legislation are still missing because the bill was introduced in short form. But the stated intent of the bill is to bar “a sentence that, in effect, amounts to life without parole due to the length of the sentence and restriction on parole,” and to replace such punishments with a sentence of 25-to-life. State Representative Brian Cina, one of the bill’s sponsors, told me that he was open to negotiating how to define what “amounts to life without parole” with the House Committee on Judiciary, or with the state’s Sentencing Commission.

“The idea is that there should be an opportunity to be released while a person is still alive,” Cina said. “We want to leave the door open for hope and redemption.” He characterized the legislation in terms of restorative justice, an approach that aims to involve offenders, victims, and communities in a resolution process. “We want there to be some pathway and some consideration in sentencing for people to be able to redeem themselves and make amends for what they did, to restore their place in society and repair the harm they did,” he said.

Sarah George, the state’s attorney for Vermont’s largest county, Chittenden, retweeted a petition of support for HB 382. She did not reply to a subsequent request for comment on her views about the legislation.

“It’s terrific that the state is broadening life-sentence reforms to include those who will likely not outlive their sentence because of its length,” Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project and co-author of the recent book “The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences,” told me of Vermont’s bill in an email.

But Nellis also encouraged Vermont to stay bold in rethinking excessively long sentences, especially as lawmakers works out the details of this legislation, and of resisting the introduction of carve-outs. “A progressive state like Vermont, which has relatively few lifers, could establish itself as a leader by limiting sentences to at most 20 years,” she said. Limiting incarceration to 20 years is the goal of the Campaign to End Life Imprisonment, which the Sentencing Project started in 2018.

German Lopez of Vox wrote an essay this month that makes the case for “capping all prison sentences at no more than 20 years.” He argued that “empirical research has consistently found that locking up people for very long periods of time does little to nothing to combat crime, and may actually lead to more crime as people spend more time in prison,” and also that “a cap will force us to think of prison as a place for rehabilitation.”

Reformers have already been successful this last decade in curtailing lifetime imprisonment for minors.

Following a series of Supreme Court rulings that constrained life without parole sentences for juveniles, states adopted a wave of further reforms. Today, 21 states plus D.C. allow no life without parole sentences for juveniles. Eighteen of them have abolished that sentence since 2012, according to a tracker of reforms that is maintained by the Juvenile Sentencing Project. (That said, because of disparate retroactivity and resentencing provisions, people are still serving life without parole sentences over offenses they committed as minors in some of these states.)

Will that movement progress further in 2019?

The Political Report knows of four states with still-active legislation in the current session to abolish life without parole sentences for offenses people commit before they are 18: Oklahoma (Senate Bill 112), Rhode Island (House Bill 5333), South Carolina (Senate Bill 47), and Tennessee (House Bill 876, Senate Bill 842). Some of these bills, like Tennessee’s, also expand parole eligibility for minors with lengthy sentences that come with a distant possibility of release.

Only Oklahoma’s version has moved forward a legislative step as of now, making it out of one House committee. (That said, similar bills have already been defeated in at least two states this year: Montana, where the House Judiciary committee tabled legislation on Feb. 19, and Arizona, where the deadline for a proposed bill to move out of committee expired last week with no action.)

As drafted, these bills differ as to how long someone sentenced for an offense they committed as a minor has to wait parole eligibility. For instance, Rhode Island’s would make people eligible for parole after 15 years, while South Carolina’s timeline is 20 to 30 years. Of course, when parole eligibility actually kicks in is a major factor in whether sentences are effectively curtailed, as is what that process actually looks like once it happens. “Parole boards are problematic in many places,” Nellis told me. “Boards that are overly politicized or considering cases in name only can set individuals back even though they are prepared for life on the outside.”

Dalton, of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, said that some of the same reasons to not impose life without parole sentences on minors apply to older individuals as well.

“The reality is that brain development continues well into your 20s,” he said, also citing research like that conducted by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center that found that the risk of recidivism among “recently released lifers” was “minimal.” Dalton argued that these factors make it unreasonable “to punish somebody for life, to take away their freedom for their entire life span when there may be significant circumstances that would indicate that they could be safely released. … The question is, is there a point at which punishment has served every purpose that it can be reasonably expected to serve?”

This article has been updated to reflect the introduction of bills to end life without parole sentences in Massachusetts.