Nationally, nearly 10 percent of more than 2.3 million inmates were serving life sentences in 2008, including 41,095 people doing life without parole, up 22 percent in five years, according to The Sentencing Project, which advocates alternatives to prison. The increase resulted from lawmakers "dramatically" expanding the types and repeat offenses that carry potential life terms, research analyst Ashley Nellis said.
"The theme is we're protecting society, then the question is: From what?" said Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, a watchdog group. She said with the cost of keeping a state inmate $55,000 a year — a cost that grows as they age and their medical needs increase — a financial analysis shows that parole and probation are far cheaper punishments that can also satisfy the public need for retribution.
Meanwhile, data show new crimes by convicted felons steadily declining from their teens through their dotage. "Most criminal behavior is tied with impulse control. The section of the brain that controls impulse control is the last section of the brain that becomes fully developed," Elijah said. There's a large drop-off in criminal behavior and recidivism after 40 or 45, she said, a point seldom made in public discussion "because it's not convenient. It doesn't dovetail with the kind of tough-on-crime mentality that results in votes."
Patricia Gioia, whose daughter was murdered 26 years ago in California and who runs the Albany chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, said killers should spend their lives locked up, contemplating what they did, the person whose life they took and the lifelong suffering of families and friends. "They should in effect be punished for this and should not enjoy the freedom that other people have to wander the world," she said.
A Stanford University study in September showed the recidivism rate was less than 1 percent among 860 murderers paroled in California since 1995. Five returned to prison for new felonies, none for similar life-term crimes. By contrast, nearly 49 percent of all released California inmates were recommitted for new crimes.
"Not only are most violent crimes committed by people under 30, but even the criminality that continues after that declines drastically after age 40 and even more so after age 50," the study found.Regular Grits readers have known for a long time that Texas faces a growing number of elderly and infirm prisoners in its prison system, many of them with extraordinarily high healthcare costs. These prisoner demographics are the main cost driver for prison healthcare during an era when the Legislature has slashed funding for that purpose.
In recent years, having made virtually everything a felony and pretty much maxxing out on possible sentence enhancements (hence all the absurd ones we get now like misrepresenting the size of a fish), the Texas Legislature has expanded use of mandatory-minimum sentences, introduced life-without-parole (which accounts for scores of new TDCJ admissions each year), and just this year for the first time began to expand use of life-without-parole to non-capital crimes. At last count, around 6% of Texas prisoners were serving life sentences, compared to about 20% in California. (Prisoners with life sentences, as well as sex offenders, are also ineligible for medical parole.)
Texas could avoid going California's route, i.e., paying through the nose to incarcerate prisoners who pose little threat to public safety so this or that elected official can boast they're "tuff on crime." But that's where the system is headed if the state continues down its current sentencing path. California's federal litigation over inadequate health-care funding shows what happens when this particular bubble bursts.