Life without parole sentencing refers to laws, policies, and practices concerning lifetime prison sentences that also preclude release by parole. While sentences to imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole have existed for more than a century in the United States, over the past four decades the penalty has emerged as a prominent element of U.S. punishment, routinely put to use by penal professionals and featured regularly in public discourse. As use of the death penalty diminishes in the United States, life without parole serves as the ultimate punishment in more and more U.S. jurisdictions. The scope with which states apply life without parole varies, however, and some states have authorized the punishment even for nonviolent offenses. More than a punishment serving purposes of retribution, crime control, and public safety, and beyond the symbolic functions of life without parole sentencing in U.S. culture and politics, life without parole is a lived experience for more than 50,000 prisoners in the United States. Life without parole’s increasing significance in the United States points to the need for further research on the subject—including studies that directly focus on how race and racial prejudice factor in life without parole sentencing, studies that investigate the proximate causes of life without parole sentences at the state and local level, and studies that examine the similarities and differences between life without parole, the death penalty, and de facto forms of imprisonment until death.
Mass imprisonment in the United States is an epidemic that has spread across five generations affecting millions of individuals, their families, and hundreds of communities. The United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world—with over 2 million behind bars and another 5 to 7 million under community supervision on parole and probation. With 5% of the world’s population, the United States has 25% of all the world’s prisoners. This U.S. system imposes many punitive policies, holding more of its citizens in isolation and solitary confinement than all the other prisons of the world combined and imposing the highest rates of life sentences of any nation. This public health analysis of mass incarceration in the United States (first proposed in Ernest Drucker’s 2011 book, A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America) must therefore also address the high rates of prisoner reentry that accompany it—with over 600,000 U.S. prisoners reentering society each year—with the highest recidivism rate of any nation. This population is disproportionally poor and members of America’s large minority populations (African Americans and Latinos). The public health model provides a new tool for ending the American epidemic of mass imprisonment and, of equal importance, healing those who have survived its blows. This stage of the American story of mass incarceration is covered in Drucker’s 2018 book, Decarcerating America: From Mass Punishment to Public Health. But releasing people from prisons is not enough—the taint of punishment has a long-lasting and debilitating effect on the millions who return from prison to their home communities—facing social stigma and the many restrictions placed upon them as part of the conditions of parole—including limits of their access to public education, healthcare, and housing—as well as convicted felons’ loss of the right to vote. The United States badly needs a paradigm shift that replaces these impediments to successful reentry after prison, creating instead a positive place and normal life for this population in the outside world.
James M. Binnall and Maryanne Alderson
Reentry is the process of ending a period of incarceration, leaving jail or prison, and returning to society. Not to be confused with reintegration or recidivism, reentry is not a measure of success or failure. Instead, reentry is a journey, and no two reentries are analogous. The reentry process is individualized and highly dependent on a number of factors including a reentering individual’s sentence structure, incarceration experience, and postrelease resources. Depending on these factors, a reentering individual may find his or her return to the free world a relatively smooth transition or a task riddled with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. To navigate such obstacles, most reentering individuals need assistance. Traditionally, reentry assistance was provided by the state, through correctional programming in prison or by parole authorities tasked with monitoring a reentering individual postrelease. In recent years, nonprofit and faith-based organizations have increasingly been a part of innovative reentry initiatives. There has also been a recent expansion of Internet-based reentry resources, such as reentry.net and exoffenders.net, which allow those experiencing reentry to obtain reentry resources online.
Reentry initiatives typically take two forms: deficit-based and strengths-based. Deficit-based reentry models use actuarial assessments to identify a reentering individual’s criminogenic risks and needs. In theory, deficit-based models then address those risks and needs through measured, tailored responses. Critics of deficit-based models argue that by focusing only on risks and needs, such approaches overlook reentering individuals’ talents and skills. Acknowledging these criticisms, many reentry initiatives have shifted away from the traditional deficits-centered model of reentry and toward a strengths-based approach. Rather than focusing on the risks and needs of a reentering individual, strengths-based approaches highlight the attributes of reentering individuals and draw on the experiences of former offenders who have successfully navigated their own reentry and best understand the pitfalls of the process. Recent, albeit limited empirical and experiential evidence supports the strength-based approach to reentry, suggesting that the concerns and insights of those who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system make the transition from incarceration to freedom a smoother one.
Tackling racism in prisons has a relatively long policy, practice, and research history in England and Wales. However, clear evidence of success in reducing racism in prisons has been, and still is, difficult to find. This article is based on a unique study that was carried out either side of the new millennium (late 1999 to mid-2001), but no equivalent exercise has been repeated since. Due to a unique set of circumstances at the time the study was carried out, it became possible to employ an action research approach that required policymakers, practitioners, volunteers, and researchers to agree on: an emergent research design; implementation; intervention; and measurement. There are many forms of action research, but this study could best be defined as a “utilization-focused evaluation, which is particularly applicable to the criminal justice environment. This approach also included elements of participatory action research.” The emphasis here is to show how the action research approach can be both more systematic and more flexible than traditional social science approaches. This applies to both epistemological and research methods considerations, because, by combining theory and action, action research can provide a more viable way of ensuring that policy works in practice, and is sensitive to unique institutional exigencies. Throughout, discussion is contextualised using policy, research and methodology texts from the period when the research was commissioned, but given an overall methodological context by referencing more recent methodology text books.
The article first outlines the context in which the action research study was commissioned, before providing a summary of the international research findings on race relations in prisons, from which key concepts for the project were initially operationalized. The chapter then explains how the specific participatory action research approach was selected as the most appropriate design, the extent to which the approach was successful, and why. The article ends with a discussion of the implications of findings and conclusions from this study for current policy and methodological approaches.
The death penalty, also referred to as capital punishment, is the process whereby a state government orders a sentence of death for a person found guilty of a particular set of criminal offenses. In the United States, the primary capital crime is first-degree murder with an additional aggravating factor, usually called a “special circumstance” (e.g., murder of a law enforcement officer). Capital punishment is a complex process that includes a criminal charge, an involved legal process, sentencing, special “death row” prison housing, post-conviction appeals, and the ultimate execution of the defendant. Persons sentenced to death are called condemned. Execution refers specifically to the process in which the defendant is killed.
Capital punishment has been practiced throughout human history, with considerable variation across eras and regions. In the last 50 years, the use of capital punishment has declined across the globe, and there are relatively few countries that use it regularly as a form of punishment, most notably China. Some countries have abolished the death penalty completely, such as all member states of the European Union. Most other countries have seen a decline in its use. For instance, only 31 out of 50 states in the United States currently have death penalty statutes (there are also federal death penalty statutes, which are rarely used). The other 19 U.S. states are referred to as “abolitionist.”
The “modern era” of capital punishment in the United States was spurred by two important Supreme Court cases. The Furman v. Georgia (1972) decision ruled that arbitrariness in the application of the death penalty deemed its use unconstitutional. The reversal of that ruling four years later in Gregg v. Georgia (1976) reestablished the death penalty in America, and experts refer to the modern era as 1976 to the present.
Sarah Tahamont and Nicole E. Frisch
Correctional classification is at the core of the prison experience. Classification processes determine what, with whom, and how an inmate will spend his or her time while incarcerated. Classification designation influences virtually all dimensions of prison life, including the structure of inmate routines, ability to move about the facility premises, program eligibility, mandatory treatments, and housing location or style. Yet it is very challenging to speak about correctional classification in general terms, because there are 51 different classification schemes in the United States, one for each of the 50 states and the federal prison system. Correctional classification can be centralized or decentralized to varying degrees across institution, facility, and unit levels of prisons. Although often used interchangeably in correctional argot, the two predominant correctional classification types are security (referring to the characteristics of the prison) and custody (referring to the permissions of the inmate). Classification structures and processes shape much of the prison experience and, as such, are central to investigations of the effects of prison on inmate outcomes. Indeed, the extent of the deprivations inmates face during incarceration is largely determined by their institution, facility, unit, and custody levels. Discussing correctional classification across systems is challenging because classification designations take on a heterogeneous, nested structure, meaning that in some systems institution and facility are the same, in other systems facility and custody are the same, and in still other systems institution, facility, and custody are all distinct, with custody nested in facilities nested in institutions. In addition to classification structures, there are classification processes which are the set of procedures that correctional administrators use to determine security and custody levels. Classification criteria, processes, and timelines vary across departments of corrections. The general goals of classification procedures are to minimize the probability of escape and maximize the security of the department facilities, inmates, and staff, while housing the inmate at the least restrictive level possible and providing appropriate services. Correctional administrators must balance security and rehabilitative concerns in custody and security classification practices. In what is often described as a direct trade-off, most agencies prioritize the security and safety of inmates and staff over the treatment needs of inmates.
David E. Olson
Despite all the attention paid to the growing prison populations in the United States since the early 1990s, it remains, as it has throughout recent history, that probation accounts for the largest portion of those under the custody of the criminal justice system. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that at the end of 2015, there were more than 3.7 million adults under the supervision of U.S. probation authorities, compared to 1.5 million in prison, 870,000 on parole, and 728,000 in local jails. And while probation is not often thought about within the context of “mass incarceration” in the United States, probation directly impacts prison and jail populations in two specific ways. First, a sentence of probation for a felony offense is the most frequent alternative to a prison sentence. Second, the revocation of probation can directly lead to the imposition of a sentence to prison or jail, depending on the nature of the original conviction offense. During 2015, in the United States, it is estimated that 12% of all probationers exiting supervision were incarcerated due to probation revocation, which translates to an estimate of more than 233,000 probationers annually.
Probation revocation means that the sentencing court has determined that a violation of the conditions of probation have occurred, and because of this, the original probation sentence is no longer appropriate. As a result of a probation sentence being revoked, the sentencing court imposes a different (usually more serious) sanction on the offender. Often, those on probation for a felony offense who have their probation revoked are sentenced to prison, leading to their admission to prison. Indeed, given this link, scholars and practitioners have identified reducing probation revocation as one strategy to reducing prison populations, and jurisdictions often focus on reducing probation revocations as a means to lowering their commitments to prison. Probation revocation can result from either new arrests or violations of technical aspects of the sentence, such as missed appointments or non-compliance with treatment orders. However, whether or not a probation sentence is revoked as a result of these violations varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. This variation in the use of probation revocation as a response to violations of probation illustrates the localized nature of revocation proceedings, and attempts to reduce these disparities have taken many forms. These efforts to reduce the impact of probation revocations on prison admissions have ranged from providing local jurisdictions with financial incentives to respond to revocation-eligible violations with sanctions other than incarceration, to legislative efforts to prohibit sentences to prison as a response to probation revocations stemming from technical violations or instances where public safety is not threatened.
Julie Brancale, Thomas G. Blomberg, and William D. Bales
The movements of accused and convicted offenders in many countries around the world are increasingly being monitored with electronic supervision tools. Individuals can be placed on electronic monitoring (EM) by the justice system for numerous reasons and can be of varying risk levels. Currently, individuals are placed on EM as conditions of pretrial release, probation, and parole. EM is a versatile tool designed to aid correctional officers in their supervision of offenders sentenced to confinement or house arrest. There are many forms of EM devices that are designed to limit the freedom and monitor the movements of individuals to ensure they are in compliance with court-mandated restrictions. In general, EM is intended to be an alternative to detention in either jails or prisons and is an intermediate sanction that is more punitive than traditional probation but less punitive than imprisonment. The expanded use of EM in recent years is largely attributable to financial constraints and overcrowding experienced by many jails and prisons. However, the empirical research of the effectiveness and unintended consequences is limited. There are serious concerns that have yet to be addressed about possible net-widening associated with EM use and whether it truly is an effective alternative to incarceration.
Margaret Colgate Love
Executive clemency has a rich history in the United States, both as an agent of justice and as a tool of politics. A presidential power to pardon was included in Article II of the Constitution, and all but one of the state constitutions provides for a clemency mechanism. States have established a variety of ways to manage and sometimes limit a governor’s exercise of the constitutional pardoning power, but the president’s power has remained unlimited by law. Until quite recently, clemency played a fully operational part in both federal and state justice systems, and the pardoning power was used regularly and generously to temper the harsh results of a criminal prosecution. Presidents also used their power to calm and unify the country after a period of strife, and to further policy goals when legislative solutions fell short.
But in modern times unruly clemency’s justice-enhancing role has been severely diminished, initially because reforms in the legal system made it less necessary, but later because of theoretical and practical objections to its regular use. A reluctance on the part of elected officials to take political risks, as well as clemency-related controversies, have further eroded clemency’s legitimacy. As a result, in most U.S. jurisdictions clemency now plays a limited role, and the public regards its exercise with suspicion. There are only about a dozen states in which clemency operates as an integral part of the justice system, in large part because its exercise is protected from political pressures by constitutional design. At the same time, the need for an effective clemency mechanism has never been greater, particularly in the federal system, because of lengthy mandatory prison sentences and the lifelong collateral civil consequences of conviction. It appears unlikely that an unregulated and unrestrained executive power will ever be restored to its former justice-enhancing role, so that those concerned about fairness and proportionality in criminal punishments must engage in the more demanding work of democratic reform.
In the contemporary era of “tough on crime” policies and the globalized drug war, the number of women in the criminal justice system has increased across several countries. Women’s involvement in the system is not limited to imprisonment, however, and many criminalized women (those involved in the justice system with the assigned status of defendants, offenders, etc.) participate in community-based programs after serving sentences in prisons or jails or as an alternative to incarceration. Criminalized women encounter multiple interlocking forms of oppression based on sexuality, race and ethnicity, class, disability, immigration status, punishment status, and (importantly) gender. Gendered ideas and norms shape the way women are treated not only by the carceral state but also by community-based, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
NGOs have played an increasingly prominent role in the provision of social services since the 1970s. Organizations working with criminalized people in more affluent, English-speaking nations commonly address job readiness, psychological and substance issues, parenting, sexuality, romantic relationships, and spirituality, among other important areas. Some NGOs work with criminalized people as a condition of their criminal sentences. Criminalized women’s self-reported needs are great, yet resources are often scarce, inadequate, and unwelcoming, particularly for women of color. Responding to a dearth of services available to women, feminists formed NGOs focused on this population beginning in the 1970s; women are also served at NGOs that work with men. “Reducing offending” and “empowerment” are frequently stated goals at NGOs that work with women, but these goals can be interpreted widely depending on the views of NGO leadership and staff about gender.
NGOs can approach women’s gender in a variety of ways. For instance, they can resist or affirm the dominant views used by the carceral state that criminalize and stigmatize women. Their approaches matter because of the implications for equality of opportunities that follow. Two major philosophies can motivate the outreach that NGOs do with criminalized women. Gender sameness disregards gender differences and stresses that it is necessary to treat women “like men” to reverse the disadvantages and marginalization that women encounter. Gender difference emphasizes the importance of treating men or women based on their purportedly unique characteristics and social experiences. Much critical feminist research on NGOs that work with criminalized women has studied programs formed around ideas of gender difference.
Critical researchers have examined gender in organizational work with women outside of prisons, in community-based prisons run by NGOs, and in more traditional prisons. Researchers have examined practices at programs, the philosophies underpinning them, and their implications. This body of work shows that NGOs can perpetuate gendered exclusions and may expand the power of the carceral state. In their prescriptions for responding to the status quo, critical researchers make arguments along a spectrum from advocating more moderate social change, such as by creating more effective programs, to more radical social change, such as by ending community-based programs that perpetuate carceral control.