Why the Need For LWOP Reform

A Message From Founder and CEO Susan E. Lawrence, M.D. ,Esq.

There was a time in which I, like many others, believed that life without parole (LWOP) was a humane alternative to traditional forms of execution.  That changed in 2004, when I began teaching a course, “Creating a Healing Society,” to the Honor Program at California State Prison-Los Angeles County).At that time I was the CEO of The Catalyst Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 1992, whose mission was to raise awareness of the impact of childhood trauma as the root cause and driving force of the most serious problems facing our society today, including violence, crime, and incarceration.  Sharing these concepts with maximum-security prisoners, helping them to see the hidden motivators of their criminal behavior, seemed a worthy activity in pursuit of creating a healthier world.

       It is said all true benefits are mutual, and what I learned during the many years I volunteered at the prison was nothing short of astonishing.  I was permitted access to a hidden world few are privileged to see.  Many of the prisoners I met were good and decent people who, a long time ago, had made terrible mistakes, but had rehabilitated themselves to an extraordinary degree.  These were people I would not hesitate to have as my neighbors; however, no matter how impressive their transformation, how sincere their remorse, or how great their desire to make up for wrongs done, they would never again be welcome in society.  Over time, as my students came to trust me, they revealed to me the truth and agony of serving LWOP. Through their eyes I saw the ravaging effects of aging in prison; the helplessness and desperation to obtain needed medical care; the terror of being permanently cut off from loved ones; and the daily dehumanizing and abusive treatment that would cease only with the end of life itself. I came to see that LWOP is, in fact, the death penalty.   

      In 2008, I was instrumental in helping the LWOP prisoner leadership in the Honor Program form The Other Death Penalty Project, a prisoner-led organization whose goal is to organize the tens of thousands of LWOP prisoners nationwide to peacefully advocate for the end of this cruel sentence. For ten years after its founding, I collaborated closely with the Project as its free world liaison, raising awareness of this vital human rights issue which still remains far outside the consciousness of most Americans.  During this work I quickly realized that absent the training and status of a lawyer I could not be as effective as I needed to be to make a significant difference.  I attended law school so that I could become a full time advocate for the abolition of LWOP, while maintaining a connection to the population most affected by the issue, the prisoners, a vital source of experiential knowledge and wisdom. After passing the California Bar Exam in 2017, I launched The Center for Life Without Parole Studies, with the mission of ending this cruel and inhumane sentence nationwide and helping California LWOP prisoners have an opportunity for release.


     In the modern movement against mass incarceration, it is often said that certain types of prisoners, such as non-violent drug offenders and veterans, are less deserving of LWOP.  The implication of this statement by default is that there are others who actually deserve LWOP, i.e., the violent offenders.  My contention is that LWOP is an immoral sentence deserved by no one.  Every human being is capable of transformation and redemption, and LWOP, as a "covenant with the past," is the denial of that possibility. No life sentence should be irreducible, and all prisoners should have the chance to demonstrate their fitness for release.  There may be some who will never be able to rejoin society, and will in fact never be released; but no one should be entirely denied the opportunity.

     Finally, a note about language.  To emphasize that LWOP is a death sentence, the Center refers to what is commonly called "the death penalty" as "lethal injection," "the traditional death penalty," "capital punishment," or similar distinguishing terminology.