Helping Prisoners for Life

The number of prisoners serving life sentences in the US has increased 83 percent since 1992. That figure is sobering enough even before one learns that violent crime decreased by 35 percent during the same period.

Supporters of tough sentencing might argue that it has helped reduce the crime rate. Critics say other factors, such as an aging population and economic growth, held down crime.

Either way, the nation needs to ask if having so many "lifers" behind bars is still a valid approach.

The sentencing vs. crime comparison, examined this week as part of a 50-state study by the criminal justice advocacy group, The Sentencing Project, shows that prisoner rehabilitation has clearly taken a back seat to lock-'em-up-for-good incarceration (although a quarter of the "lifers" are eligible for parole).

The same report notes that 80 percent of lifers who are paroled remain free after the first three years of their release - the highest risk period. That suggests the criminal justice system is losing out on an opportunity to rehab prisoners sooner.

Alternatives to life imprisonment are also less expensive. Taxpayers foot an average $1 million bill to keep an inmate in jail for life; total costs nationwide have reached $2.5 billion a year.

That cost could be reduced if more states allowed early release for good behavior, or tried to reduce recidivism by tracking the movements of parolees with ankle bracelets that use global positioning satellites. Florida used such tracking gadgets on former sex offenders and reduced their recidivism to between 3 percent and 7 percent from 50 percent.

States need to provide more help for prisoners to reenter society, such as vocational training. And the number of life sentences could be reduced if legislatures returned more discretion to judges and parole boards in dealing with violent criminals.

The report sends a strong message to states that more must be done to move criminal justice toward rehabilitation and away from wholesale punitive punishment - especially in those six states where life sentences are imposed without even the possibility of parole.

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