We have many good reasons to abolish life without parole sentences (LWOP, known in some countries as whole life sentences) and no good reasons not to. After reviewing the current state of LWOP sentences in the United States, I argue that the only rationale for punishment that can hope to justify them is retributivism. But even if retributivism is a sound principle, it in no way entails life without parole. One reason is that unless one believes, like Kant, that appropriate punishments must be carried out whatever the circumstances, we must acknowledge that other considerations are relevant to determining punishments. Furthermore, retributivism does not dictate particular punishments, and so the question remains which are reasonable and appropriate.
Even retributivists, then, can reject life without parole. But showing why it’s wrong requires a positive case for abolition as well. I offer several reasons. First, shortening and tempering sentences need not trivialize the gravity of the crimes to which they respond, as some suggest, because the expressive meaning of sentences is malleable. Second, most if not all people are not fully culpable for their criminal acts, and we should mitigate their punishment accordingly. Third, abolishing life without parole—and indeed all life sentences—is likely to bring many benefits: to prisoners, their loved ones, the community in general, and to those who decide for abolition and who carry it out. Among these is the promotion of certain attitudes it is good for people to have—what, following Ryan Preston-Roedder, I call faith in humanity. Finally, there’s a certain pointlessness in continuing to punish a person who has undergone changes of character that distance him greatly from the person who committed the crime many decades earlier.
life without parole, kant, lwop, retribution, retributivism, culpability, criminal justice, criminal justice reform, jail time, punishment