Humanists have a long history of opposing the death penalty—the American Humanist Association issued three official board resolutions opposing capital punishment in 1961, 1976, and 2000 over concerns about its inability to deter crime, its cruel and therefore unconstitutional nature, its disproportionate use on mostly poor prisoners, and its misapplication on those who are innocent of the crime for which they have been convicted.
As believers in the inherent dignity and worth of every human being, humanists have long worked for prison and justice reform by opposing not only capital punishment, but solitary confinement and unfair religious practices in prisons and jails. But one issue that our community hasn’t taken a stance on, at least not officially, is that of life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Many countries, especially in Europe and South America, have already abolished life sentences without the possibility of parole. These countries have made the important recognition that permanent incarceration is merely a poorly disguised death sentence, as it gives the imprisoned no chance or incentive to reform themselves and no chance to reenter into society before their death. Not only are such sentences purely punitive, they often result in a quality of life that doesn’t ensure a base standard of dignity. Such conditions may be appropriate for a limited period of time so as to convince a prisoner not to commit further crimes for fear of the consequences, but when that state is the only one a prisoner will experience for the rest of his or her life, it is inhumane and does not align with humanistic values.
Humanists place an emphasis on living in this world instead of preparing for a supposed afterlife. But with that recognition must come the understanding that life sentences without parole are inherently unethical, as they are a permanent, irreversible sentence much like capital punishment. The late Christopher Hitchens often railed against the unethical nature of hell, deploring the idea of infinite punishment for a finite temporal crime. Much as the concept of hell is an everlasting punishment for a finite sin, life imprisonment is an everlasting punishment by denying the prisoner’s right to freely exist for the entirety of his or her life.
How, then, is society to protect the rights of current and future victims while honoring the inherent dignity of those currently sentenced to life imprisonment without parole by ending their permanent incarceration? Are the rights of the imprisoned greater than the right of other citizens to live free from fear and danger?
It’s important to clarify that the issue being discussed isn’t life sentences, but life sentences without the possibility of parole. By keeping a prisoner locked up for the rest of their life regardless of their ability to reform, the state is effectively ending that person’s existence. But by offering parole to those prisoners who aren’t likely to go out and commit more crimes, the state is incentivizing reformation while ensuring that they aren’t releasing prisoners who can and will harm others. This means that some prisoners may in fact spend most of their lives in prison until their desire or at least ability to harm others is effectively negated, most often by advanced aged or other factors. Still, they will not die in prison and will be able to end their time on Earth outside of a cage and in the company of those that they choose to be with. Above all else, their stay in prison will be primarily determined by their own decisions, granting them a sense of agency and dignity not afforded to those who receive life sentences without parole.
It’s also worth noting that recidivism by those who served life sentences with the possibility of parole is lower than recidivism by those receiving other sentences. According to a 2013 report by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations, “Lifers recidivate at a much lower rate than those who received determinate sentences. After three years, 65 percent of determinately sentenced inmates are returned to prison, while only 13 percent of lifers are returned to prison.” This is not to say that life sentences should become the new norm in order to combat criminality, but those who receive them also should not be viewed as incapable of living in society.
Society has a choice to make. Do we remove liberty and stomp on humanistic values to ensure security? We’ve seen how that scenario has played out with the growth of the intelligence state in the wake of 9/11 and the War on Terror.
By keeping prisoners locked up for the rest of their natural lives, we are hypothetically preventing future crimes and protecting potential victims. But the cost of doing so, both to the democratic values we ascribe to as a society and the sense of ethics we endorse as individual humanists, is far too great. We must err on the side of human dignity and a belief in the ability to reform, and prioritize efforts that seek to change the justice system so as to remove life sentences without the possibility of parole from the list of available punishments.