LWOP Facts


Facts Regarding Life Without Parole




1.  Despite popular belief, LWOP is not a "humane" alternative to lethal injection.  It is simply another form of the death penalty--death by incarceration.


2.  There are over 53,000 people serving LWOP in the United States (and another 44,000 serving “de facto LWOP” (sentences that exceed the human lifespan if carried out in full)),[1] compared with fewer than 100 in the entire continent of Europe.[2]  The number of LWOP-sentenced European prisoners would not even begin to fill a single yard in one of California's 35 prisons.


3.  The European Court of Human Rights has held LWOP sentences to be cruel and degrading punishment and a violation of human rights because of their complete denial of hope. 


4. Pope Francis has openly condemned LWOP, and the Vatican Criminal Code has abolished all life sentences.


5.  It is the position of the Center for Life Without Parole Studies that every human being is capable of transformation and redemption; LWOP, as a "covenant with the past," [3] denies that possibility. While there may be some prisoners who will never be able to rejoin society, no one should be entirely denied the opportunity.


6.  In California, both the traditional death penalty and LWOP can only be ended by voter approval through a new ballot initiative (or in the unlikely circumstance of a governor's commutation of an individual prisoner's sentence).  It cannot be done by legislative means, as California is the only state that does not allow "legislative tampering" of successful initiatives.


7.  Ending LWOP does not mean prisoners are guaranteed release.  It only means they will have an opportunity at some point to be evaluated for suitability for parole. If the parole board finds they are not sufficiently rehabilitated and continue to pose a danger to society, release will be denied. 


8.  Sensationalized cases of released prisoners committing serious crimes are rare and do not represent the behavior of the vast majority of these individuals.  Sentencing practices should not be based on extremely unusual occurrences.


9.  Safety concerns about releasing convicted murderers who have served long sentences can be addressed by well documented studies revealing exceptionally low recidivism rates. A 2013 Stanford University study of 860 murderers paroled in California noted that only five returned to prison for new felonies, and none for murder.[4]


10. According to 2016-2017 data from the Legislative Analyst's Office (the California Legislature's Nonpartisan Fiscal and Policy Advisor), it costs an average of $71,000 to house a prisoner in California. [5]


11.  United Nations human rights treaties and conventions oppose LWOP, but the United States has not ratified these instruments and is therefore not subject to the monitoring and accountability procedures of these bodies. 


12.  Eighty percent of the world's nations do not use LWOP.  Of the 193 countries in the world, only the United States and thirty-six others have LWOP statutes on their books.  Surprisingly, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria are not among them. 


13.  Under the Rome Statute (which created the International Criminal Court), a prisoner sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes, genocide, or crimes against humanity can be considered for release after serving twenty-five years.


14. The Center's focus is on adult LWOP, as recent events have, fortunately, nearly completely eliminated juvenile LWOP in the United States, and there are many organizations and advocates already working in this area.



[1] ASHLEY NELLIS, STILL LIFE: AMERICA'S INCREASING USE OF LIFE AND LONG TERM SENTENCES 10 (2017), http://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Still-Life.pdf.

[2] Craig S. Lerner, Life Without Parole as a Conflicted Punishment, 48 WAKE FOREST L. REV. 1101, 1102 (2013).

[3] Term of art used by Professor Dirk Van Zyl Smit, Professor of Comparative and International Penal Law at Nottingham University.

[4] https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2013/apr/15/california-stanford-report-analyzes-lifer-paroles/

[5] http://www.lao.ca.gov/PolicyAreas/CJ/6_cj_inmatecost