Long-term Prison Sentences vs. Death Penalty
Explore how long term prison sentences have replaced the death penalty, and how parole plays a role.

At the end of each episode on Wrongful Conviction, host Jason Flom hands the microphone over to the guest for their “closing argument”. Much like the purpose of the closing argument in the courtroom, this section of the podcast allows the guest to drive home key details and present a persuasive argument that should be considered and applied to thought.

cost of parole

In a recent episode, exoneree Johnny Berry uses the moment to shine the light on parole eligibility. As a free man, Johnny has aligned his focus to getting the Pennsylvania legislature to enact a law that allows people serving life sentences to see the parole board when deserved. But why?

parole and life sentence

Firstly, he argues that it’s cost-efficient. Johnny explains that it costs upwards of $37,000 to $40,000 to house an incarcerated person each year. If the individual is geriatric or in a state where they need assistance then this cost increases dramatically.

Secondly, he reveals that the reoffending rate is low. If you look at the statistics, the recidivism rate for an individual who has been commuted after serving a life sentence, pardoned or released on parole is less than 1%. Essentially, this group of individuals have a very low rate of reoffending.

life sentence recividism

Johnny argues that the legislature should open the door for deserving life-sentencers to see the parole board, and leave it to the parole board to assess the specific details of the individual’s case and the efforts that they have made while incarcerated.

understanding the basics of parole

Let’s get back to basics. For those who aren’t familiar with the criminal justice system, parole may seem like a hazy concept.

Essentially, parole offers well-behaved incarcerated individuals an opportunity to serve out their remaining prison sentence in “freedom” while under supervision. To put it more eloquently, parole offers an opportunity for prisoners to reintegrate into society while simultaneously encouraging good behaviour outside of prison walls. It also encourages positive behaviour while incarcerated in the hope of meeting with the parole board.

what is parole

At the same time, parole reduces prison overcrowding and allows less-dangerous individuals the opportunity to reintegrate into society under supervision, while cutting government costs. It’s important to understand that parole is not a right and authorities have the discretion to deny parole to incarcerated individuals that could be considered dangerous. If a parole board does find a prisoner to be eligible for parole, then the parolee has to follow strict guidelines.

Some of these parole conditions may include;

  • Maintain employment and residence 
  • Avoid criminal activity 
  • Cut association with any victims 
  • Refrain from drug (or alcohol) abuse 
  • Attend drug or alcohol recovery meetings 
  • Stay within a specified geographical area 
  • Report to a parole officer 
  • Complete monthly written reports 

While parole is considered a step up from living behind bars, there’s a lot of red tape and limitations that govern the process. In many ways, life without parole is considered an alternative to a death sentence.

The reality of parole

“Parole is better than prison. But that doesn’t mean I’m free.”
- Abd’Allah Lateef

These words were shared by Abd’Allah Lateef, who was sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) at the age of 17. After the Supreme Court heard his case, they made the decision to release him on a (strict) condition — he had to endure parole for the rest of his life.

Life without parole is replacing the death penalty, especially in regions where the death penalty is not an option. However, the Marshall Project points out that the legal defence system has not kept up with this development.

What does this mean?

For example, when facing the justice system for a capital case, defendants are given lawyers who are experienced in navigating the death penalty. These experienced lawyers have a special obligation to argue any point needed to defend their client aggressively.

Going to trial for a non-death-penalty case doesn’t have these same requirements. Yet if the final sentence is life without parole, then there’s a high chance that the individual will die in prison. Abd’Allah Lateef is one of the very rare cases where a defendant with his sentence is able to see the parole board, thereby joining the 4.5 million Americans who are on probation or parole.

Each of these individuals walks a very fine line of freedom.

The Sentencing Project reports that the number of people serving life without parole is higher than ever before, with a 66% increase since their first census in 2003.

As LWOP becomes the modern-day death penalty, it’s important to consider how the justice system and legal system will respond.