Progressives’ Next Target: Life Without Parole

by James A. Bacon

Progressives have all but won their battle to ban the death penalty in Virginia. Both houses of the General Assembly have voted to abolish Virginia’s death penalty, and Governor Northam is likely to sign the legislation. I’m OK with that. Our justice system is flawed. History has shown that too many innocent people have been condemned, and there is no walking back an execution if exculpatory evidence is found. But now the move is afoot to curtail life without parole.

The number of Virginia inmates serving life sentences now constitute 14% of Virginia’s prison population (and 15% of the nation’s). Since 2003, the number of such inmates has risen 66%.

Life-long imprisonment, progressives argue, does not add to public safety because the majority of violent offenders “age out” of criminal conduct as they get older.

Funny thing about that. Murder victims don’t “age out” of anything. They’re dead. But in the minds of progressives, murderers are, in their own way, victims, too. Victims of society.

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch,  4,239 Virginia inmates are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole; 1,628 are serving life without parole; and 1,326 are serving “virtual” life sentences of 50 years or more. The number of Virginia inmates serving life has increased 90% from 1970 to 2020.

Writes the Sentencing Project in a report on Virginia:

The dramatic expansion of the prison system over the past four decades has had a variety of disturbing effects, particularly on disadvantaged communities of color that have suffered the heaviest burden of these policies. People of color, particularly African Americans, are over‐represented at each stage of the Virginia criminal justice system. Though they are less than 20% of the general population, Blacks are arrested at nearly 3 times the rate of whites. African Americans are incarcerated at 6 times the rate of whites.

Here’s something else that’s happened over the past four decades. The crime rate soared for years. The number of murders has declined since its peak but still remains troublingly high. And guess what. The vast majority of crime victims are “people of color, particularly African Americans.”

According to the 2019 Crime in Virginia report, 253 African Americans were victims of murder or non-negligent manslaughter, compared to 153 whites. (Only two Asians were homicide victims that year.)

Sixteen victims (of all races) were under the age of 10. There’s no second chances for them.

As far as I’m concerned, a life sentence without the possibility of parole is a sign of leniency. Anyone guilty of first-degree murder deserves the death penalty but society in its mercy, mindful of the possibility of an unjust conviction, settles for locking him up and throwing away the key. I don’t care if aged killers are no longer a threat to society. I don’t care if killers are undeterred by the death penalty. I don’t care if it costs taxpayers money to maintain them in state facilities. There is one simple rule: If you commit first-degree murder, you forfeit your your freedom for the rest of your life.

There may be a handful of less-horrific criminal offenses where it may make sense to rethink the policy of life without parole. Fine. Let’s examine those on a case-by-case basis. But a sweeping abolition of mandatory minimum sentences, as the Sentencing Project seems to advocate, would be a moral abomination.