Is Life Really Life?

Life in prison.

The judge hands down the sentence and most people think that’s the end of it. The convicted man (or woman) will spend the balance of their natural life behind bars. Life sentences are reserved for the worst crimes–kidnapping, murder and habitual criminals.

image by jenny vargas via flickr creative commons

image by jenny vargas via flickr creative commons


I recall, early in my career, going into a jail to prepare a pre-sentence investigation on a man, convicted of a brutal murder during the course of a home invasion robbery. As I prepared for the interview, I reviewed his prior criminal history. The defendant, let’s call him Newley, was released from prison a few years before after serving – wait for it –  a life sentence for murder.

In California (I’m using the California system as an example, but I’m sure other states have similar processes) inmates come into the prison system from courts throughout the state. Depending on when the crime was committed, the sentences range from 7 years to life, 15 years to life, 25 years to life and life without he possibility of parole. So what does all this mean? Isn’t life – well, life?

image by danny ayers via flickr creative commons

image by danny ayers via flickr creative commons

Not all life terms are equal. The lower ranges of these terms, 15 to life for example, means that a “lifer” is eligible for parole after 15 years served. Actually, it’s less than that because he may be eligible to earn some time off of that 15 years for good conduct and working.

At a time near that eligibility date, let’s say 15 years again, the parole board,  called the Board of Prison Terms in this state, holds a hearing to determine if the convict poses a threat to the community if released. What about the whole life deal? Well, he could stay behind bars, and many do because their criminal conduct continues with gang activity, drug smuggling and murder.

courtesy of

courtesy of

The Board of Prison Terms considers the nature of the crime, the convict’s in prison conduct and may set a parole date. There is a review process and the full board of the Board of Prison Terms (political appointees) affirm or deny the panel’s decision. The final review comes from the Governor. Administrations of varying political stripe approve parole, or deny them.

Followers of Charles Manson, who were originally sentenced to death, and later resentenced to life, have been given parole dates and had them rescinded by the governor.

davis manson-family-murders-parole-tex-watson-1 screen_shot_2016-12-21_at_64950_pm-1482375184-3576 charles-manson-family-murder-patricia-krenwinkel-parole-02

















Prison records show California has released over 3,000 former lifers in the last three years.

Why sentence a murderer to life? It’s not to make the victims feel nice. The families have to make a trek to a prison for the parole hearing every couple of years. Where is the closure in that? Is it a mangement tool for prions, offering a behavioral incentive, waiving the possibility of release in exchange for good behavior? Or is it a political release valve for prison overcrowding?

Whatever it is, it lacks honesty and truth in sentencing. That is not the outcome sentencing judges considered. Certainty, the victims didn’t deserve this arbitrary system. And the next of kin, who I spoke with, in the Newley case deserved better from the state.

Life doesn’t always mean life. What do you think? Redemption and rehabilitation? Are long determinate sentences (75 years) the answer? Or, should each case be judged differently based upon in custody conduct? Or, will we continue to see inmates serving life on the installment plan?

image via the fog city journal

image via the fog city journal


  1. I agree – the victims are not treated well by the state, especially the innocent victims of the criminals (their children).

  2. Serving life on the installment plan. Wow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: