The Angolite Book Review: The Meaning of Life
Two hundred thousand incarcerated people in the United States—one of every seven citizens—are serving a life sentence with or without parole, or a “virtual” life sentence of 50 years or more, according to a new book by Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis, featuring contributory lifer portraits by Kerry Myers, that was released in December. The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences explores this unforgiving aspect of modern criminal justice and utilizes decades of research to answer in layman’s terms frequently-asked questions. The book addresses the impact of life sentences on mass incarceration by describing the driving mechanisms behind interminable punishment, who falls victim to it and why it must be abolished.
Mauer is the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based, reform advocacy group, The Sentencing Project. He is the author of Race to Incarcerate and Invisible Punishment, also published by The New Press.
Nellis is a senior research analyst for The Sentencing Project whose extensive body of work spotlighting American sentencing trends—particularly life sentences—is a gold standard for students, scholars and all between who are interested in learning how this country manages, or mismanages, criminal punishment.
Myers is the former editor of the prison news magazine The Angolite, who served 27 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary prior to his release in December 2016.
The Meaning of Life stands on two overriding principles: Abolishing life sentences is fundamentally necessary toward dissolving the mass incarceration tumor that has branded the United States as the world’s most prolific incarcerator; and, an across-the-board, 20-year sentencing cap should and could be instituted that would provide more incentive and opportunity for rehabilitation and successful societal reintegration, while saving money and preserving public safety.
Every state provides for some sort of life sentence, but six—Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania and South Dakota—and the federal government impose life without parole (LWOP) exclusively. Widespread use of life sentences was born in the wake of the death penalty moratorium in the early 1970s that forced states to rewrite their statutes or throw out capital punishment altogether. Abolishing LWOP is not a recent concept; The Sentencing Project has led that charge for decades. The group has published five national studies since 2003 detailing the scope of all life sentences, drawing attention to the scale of incarceration in America, the relevance of life sentences to public safety concerns and how race plays into the criminal justice system.
The Meaning of Life opens with “Life By the Numbers,” a summation of eye-catching statistical information that gives the reader a basic grasp of exactly how prevalent the imposition of life sentences has become in today’s courtrooms. Forty percent of the world’s total population serving life in prison are serving life in U.S. prisons. While about 91 percent of lifers in 2016 were convicted of violent offenses, more than 17,000 men and women were serving life for nonviolent offenses, including drug and property crimes. Two- thirds of federal prisoners are serving life for nonviolent crimes. Nearly 12,000 life sentences have been imposed on persons who committed their crimes prior to their 18th birthday. Life sentences doled out to female offenders increased by 20 percent between 2008 and 2016, a five percent increase over males that parallels the national increase in female incarceration since the 1980s. Forty-eight percent of lifers are African-American.
Policies that have nurtured life sentences— including the 1970s War on Drugs, the tough-on-crime mentality developed in the 1980s and the “three strikes” laws of the 1990s—are analyzed and the theories behind them debunked. These harsh, fear-and-retribution-driven policies imposed life terms on even nonviolent habitual offenders. Parole wait times—the number of years an applicant must wait before reapplying to the parole board if he or she is denied—have increased, and clemency recommendations for lifers have dramatically decreased. Many of these policies remove judicial sentencing discretion by prescribing mandatory penalties, and contribute to the country’s bloated prison system.
Through 11 concise chapters, Mauer and Nellis present the history and characteristics of life in prison on both the federal and state levels, and dedicate one chapter exclusively to the trials of physically serving indeterminate periods behind bars. Strategically injected into the narrative, Myers’ six case studies provide human perspectives from directly affected persons: a female lifer in Maryland; juvenile lifers finally released from Pennsylvania and California prisons, and an adult still serving time in New York; loved ones propelled into advocacy by life imprisonment’s stark realities; a 79-year-old reformer whose many successes in social activism began during his long stint on the inside. The Meaning of Life is a compendium in which readers discover answers to questions they did not know they had.
Focusing on the correlation between capital punishment and life in prison, “Death is Different” explains that capital punishment is largely responsible for courts’ seeming refusal to apply constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment to life in prison. America is one of the few Western nations to retain the death penalty, albeit not without innumerable challenges to its legality. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that the death penalty is not cruel and unusual, therefore, neither is life in prison, even though both are essentially the same in that both mandate imprisonment until the end of life.
Mauer and Nellis point out that not all Supreme Court Justices agree with blanket constitutionality granted life sentences. In 2018, Sonia Sotomayor expressed uneasiness with “life sentences not subject to review” as in the Ohio case before the bench. She noted that “a statute that shields itself from judicial scrutiny of sentences of life without the possibility of parole raises severe constitutional concerns.”
As they have done in their Sentencing Project reports, the authors offer solutions to the problem of indeterminate sentencing that has played a significant role in the castigation of the U.S. human rights reputation at home and abroad for its predilection for mass incarceration.
“Substantial evidence exists that a twenty-year maximum sentencing cap will produce better public safety outcomes than our current, record-breaking use of life imprisonment.” This proposed cap would “lead us to a better allocation of resources and would position the United States more in line with other industrialized nations in limiting the use of extreme sentences.” Citing the American Law Institute’s 2017 Model Penal Code, Mauer and Nellis agree that prison terms for single offenses in excess of 20 years are rarely justified proportionally and are too lengthy to serve any utilitarian purpose. In conjunction with effective re-entry programs and services, objective screening processes prior to release, recalibration of lengthy sentences for all offenses, retroactive application to include long-termers who deserve consideration and reinvestment of prison savings to reduce crime, America’s costly mass incarceration can finally be eradicated by releasing those who should be released.
The Meaning of Life is a go-to for understanding, a blueprint for systemic reform.