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Over 40,000 people in the United States today are serving life without parole sentences (LWOP)—more than triple the number in 1992. This figure understates the case, since parole has become increasingly rare for the 140,000 prisoners serving life sentences that ostensibly permit parole. I argue that LWOP sentences should be abolished.

After reviewing the facts about LWOP, I show that of the standard reasons for punishment only retributivism can hope to justify it. I investigate the varieties of retributivism and argue that plausible versions do not entail or even recommend it. So we can reject LWOP without abandoning retributivism—an important point, strategically and perhaps morally as well. I then make the positive case for abolition, on three main grounds. First, few (if any) people are fully culpable for their criminal acts; we should mitigate their punishment accordingly. Second, abolishing life without parole—and indeed all life sentences—is likely to bring many benefits: to prisoners, their loved ones, the community in general, and to those who decide for abolition and who carry it out. Among these is the promotion of certain attitudes it is good for people to have, including faith in humanity. Finally, there’s a certain pointlessness in continuing to punish a person who has undergone changes of character that distance them greatly from the person who committed the crime many decades earlier.

Publication Citation

Judith Lichtenberg, Against Life Without Parole, Wash. U. Jur. Rev. (forthcoming)