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What Is a Life Sentence?

Alcatraz, a prison on an island in San Francisco Bay that has been closed since 1963.
In some countries, life sentences are used only for the most offensive crimes.
For very serious offenses, a judge may issue a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
Acts of treason, such as sharing state secrets with an enemy nation, can warrant a life sentence.
Many of those who encourage life without parole sentencing see it as a better alternative to the death penalty.
San Quentin State Prison in California.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2014
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A life sentence is a criminal sentence in which someone is sent to prison for life, usually for a very serious crime. In actuality, many prisoners with such sentences can eventually apply for and receive release through a parole program, although sometimes a court specifically bars this by sentencing someone to life without parole or providing consecutive life sentences, making it impossible to parole a prisoner. This is usually reserved for cases where there are grave concerns about releasing the prisoner.

Not every nation allows life sentences. In those that do, they are used for crimes deemed serious breaches of social norms, such as murder and multiple violent robberies or rapes. Treason and crimes resulting in serious injuries to innocent bystanders may also merit a life sentence, and some nations also impose this punishment for drug trafficking. The law usually spells out cases where the life sentence is appropriate, and judges may have some discretion in applying it.

With a basic life sentence, a judge may set out terms like 25 years to life, indicating that the prisoner must serve at least 25 years before being considered for parole. For some crimes, when a person is sentenced to life, the law automatically mandates that the person serve out a set period of the sentence before being eligible for parole. In parole hearings, people will consider the nature of the crime, the person's behavior in prison, and input from victims and the community when deciding whether to release the prisoner.

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Life without the possibility of parole is a very serious sentence, reserved for cases when a judge absolutely wants to ensure that a prisoner will remain in prison for the rest of his natural life. In this form of life sentence, people are not eligible for parole at any time. Likewise, consecutive life sentences can be used in a similar manner, in addition to reinforcing the severity of a crime. These prisoners will only be released if they are exonerated of a crime by new evidence or information that was not available at the time of the original trial and sentencing.

Costs associated with life imprisonment can be high, although they are not as high as handling a death penalty case and providing for prisoners on death row. In some nations where the death penalty is still used, some advocates have suggested abolishing it and replacing it with life sentences for prisoners convicted of crimes where the death penalty is used.

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wavy58
Post 4

The possibility of parole is the one ray of hope for people who have been wrongfully convicted. My cousin was accused of a murder that he did not commit, and even though only circumstantial evidence was presented at the trial, the jury convicted him. He got fifteen years to life, and since he was only eighteen at the time, this meant he still had a chance down the road to have a good life.

While he was in prison, he exhibited excellent behavior. I'm sure this helped convince the parole board that he would be a good candidate.

When it came time for his parole hearing, he had to play along and act like he was remorseful for the crime he did not commit. If he said that he did not do it, then that would just make the board think that he hadn't changed, so he did what it took to get paroled.

He got out of prison at age 33, and since then, he has gotten married and had three children. Because of parole, he was able to have the life he always dreamed of, even though he had received a life sentence.

seag47
Post 3

@kylee07drg – To me, 25 years is not enough for some criminals to have served before getting released on parole. There are some people who have things wrong with their minds that can never be cured. These people will commit more crimes, because they are hard-wired to do so.

I heard a lawyer say once that a child molester will likely get parole before a murderer will. I think that if someone is a child molester, they will always be one. They are just twisted that way.

If we let one go, then he will destroy more children's lives. If we let a murderer go, lives are also at risk. Yes, the children usually live after being molested, but they are scarred and disturbed for the remainder of their days. Which is worse, a murder that ends your physical existence, or an emotional murder that makes you incapable of feeling secure and happy ever again?

kylee07drg
Post 2

I had always wondered what “25 years to life” or similar phrases meant. I didn't know that this was when they could be eligible for parole.

Twenty-five years is a long time to wait for parole! How would a prisoner even know how to survive in the world after such a long time in a facility?

I have actually heard of prisoners being released after decades and longing to return to jail because life on the outside was too hard. It's tough for ex-cons to find jobs, and they suddenly have to worry about meals and responsibilities. It's too much for some people, who have gotten used to being fed every day and having limited chores to do.

orangey03
Post 1

Depending on how you look at it, a life sentence can seem like a far worse punishment than the death penalty. If you believe in the afterlife, then the death penalty could set a prisoner free. A life sentence without parole condemns them to decades of misery.

Since many prisoners find God while incarcerated, they would probably rather go ahead and die to be with their Creator than suffer for the remainder of their days. Some people say that religion found in jail is not the real thing, but if they are ready to die because their conscience has been cleared, then maybe they should have that option.

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