Incarceration Nation

End Extreme Prison Sentences

Prisoner advocates turn to the UN

By Victoria Law

When I came to prison [in 1993], an officer told me the only way I would leave is in a pine box,” said 51-year-old Eileen Huber. “At the time, I believed him. I don’t believe that anymore.”

Huber is one of nearly 56,000 people sentenced to life without parole, and one of nearly 204,000 (or 15 percent of the U.S. prison population) serving a sentence that exceeds natural life expectancy. Advocates call these extreme sentences “death by incarceration.”

The United States is an outlier for such excessive sentences. Of the 193 United Nations member states, 155 prohibit life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences. In Europe, only ten countries permit sentences of life without parole; in Latin America, only four countries still mete out life without parole.

Now, U.S. advocates are turning to the United Nations. On September 15, 2022, seven organizations from around the country submitted a complaint to several UN special rapporteurs (human rights experts) charging that the United States’ extreme sentencing, including life without parole (LWOP), and other sentences that exceed life expectancy “effectively condemn individuals to death by incarceration (DBI), violate the prohibition against racial discrimination; violate individuals’ right to life; violate the prohibition against torture, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; and are an arbitrary deprivation of liberty.”

The organizations—including the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Abolitionist Law Center, the Amistad Law Project, Release Aging People in Prison, the Drop LWOP Coalition, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, and the Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic at the Drexel University Law School—hope that the United Nations will declare that these sentences are not only cruel but also racially discriminatory and a violation of individuals’ right to life, family life, dignity, and liberty. They would like to see the UN recommend that the United States adopt maximum sentencing laws that include parole eligibility within a determined number of years.

Although the United Nations cannot force the United States (or any member nation) to implement new laws, its recommendations provide moral ammunition. Advocates hope that a UN recommendation will shift the ways in which lawmakers view such draconian sentences and spur legislative efforts to repeal them.

“It would provide a tool for the growing movement across the country to end death by incarceration and to correctly frame the issue as a violation of human rights,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center and co-author of the UN complaint.

Life sentences for juveniles

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional. (The United States is the only country to sentence people to life without parole for crimes committed before the age of 18.) The ruling was not retroactive, which excluded thousands who had been sentenced as teenagers. This included Henry Montgomery, who was 17 when he was arrested and convicted in the fatal shooting of a white sheriff’s deputy in the 1960s. He appealed his exclusion and, four years later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court ruled that its earlier decision must apply retroactively. Montgomery was resentenced to life with the possibility of parole. In 2021, after 57 years in prison, he walked out a free man. He was 75 years old.

While 25 states have eliminated life without parole for people under 18 and another seven have no one sentenced to juvenile life without parole, many still allow life without parole and virtual life sentences for adults.

That includes Rose Dinkins, Pennsylvania’s longest-serving incarcerated woman, who entered prison in 1972. She had been convicted and sentenced to life without parole for the fatal shooting of two police officers.

In 1972, Dinkins was a 24-year-old mother with four small children. She parented through calls, letters, and visits. Now, those children are in their 50s, with children and grandchildren. Dinkins is 74 years old.

Other nations that allow life without parole use the penalty sparingly and only in the most extreme cases, such as the murder of two or more people or of a child, or murder for political, religious, or ideological reasons.

In the United States, however, several states allow courts to impose draconian sentences, including life without parole, for felony murder—a conviction which allows prosecutors to charge a person with murder even if they had not caused a death. Until recently, California was among them.

Felony murder, derived from English common-law, allows prosecutors to charge a person with murder if they participated in a felony in which a death occurred. Felony murder applies even if the person did not cause, or even anticipate, the death.

This includes Huber. “I had not taken life, but I did not have the bravery to attempt trying to stop someone I loved from killing,” she explained in her hand-written letter to the UN. Her then-boyfriend robbed and killed three different people. Huber had participated in the robberies, seeking money to buy drugs, but not the killings. She was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life without parole.

Studies show that Black people are disproportionately arrested and sentenced to felony murder—in Cook County, Illinois, research found that nearly 75 percent of felony murder cases had a Black defendant (compared to less than eight percent with white defendants.) In Pennsylvania, 70 percent of the more than 1,000 people serving life without parole sentences for felony murder are Black, nearly eight times the proportion of Black people living in that state.

A barbaric concept

In 1983, California’s state Supreme Court called felony murder “a barbaric concept that has been discarded in its place of origin.”

That place of origin, England, abolished felony murder in 1957. Since then, so have its former colonies of Canada, Ireland, and India, as well as Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Michigan.

In 2018, California lawmakers introduced SB 1437. It eliminated felony murder for defendants who did not kill, intend to kill, or act with reckless indifference to human life. (The person would still be prosecuted for the felonies in which they participated.) The bill was signed into law that year and made retroactive.

Between 2019 and 2021, 386 people were resentenced. The following year, the law was expanded to include those who were convicted of attempted murder and those who had pleaded guilty to manslaughter to avoid the harsher penalty if convicted of murder. Another 88 people were resentenced during the first six months of 2022. Others, however, were less fortunate, but no one tracks these numbers.

The Nation, September 15, 2022