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What Is Life Without Parole?

Someone sentenced to life without parole must remain in prison for the rest of his life.
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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 27 March 2014
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Life without parole is a criminal sentence that ensures that an individual who is convicted in court of an especially serious crime must spend the rest of his life in prison with no chance of release. It is usually reserved for felony crimes of the worst kind, such as murder, and as a practical matter means that the prisoner will die in jail. This sentence is imposed in the U.S. and other countries, and some view it as a substitute for the death penalty. According to its advocates, life without parole is less expensive than imposing the death penalty, and is still seen as providing an appropriate level of protection to the public from dangerous criminals.

Life without parole is often referred to as "life imprisonment" or a "life sentence" but these terms are actually not necessarily interchangeable. Often when after receiving a life sentence, there is still a chance that the inmate can eventually be released from prison. Depending upon the laws of the jurisdiction, parole is frequently available for good behavior or evidence of reformed character after a predetermined number of years. A sentence of life without parole eliminates this possibility, thus ensuring that the prisoner remains incarcerated for his or her entire life.

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The sentence of life without parole is reserved for the most serious felony offenses, which are usually violent in nature. The particular crimes that can receive this sentence vary depending on the jurisdiction. A murder conviction can result in life without parole; other possible examples might include rape, armed robbery, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and arson. In some jurisdictions, it is also used for repeat offenders such as individuals convicted of three or more serious, violent felonies.

In the U.S. and other countries, judges or juries can impose a sentence of life without parole, and its use is growing as more countries eliminate the death penalty. Opponents of the life sentence, however, argue that it disregards the value of the remainder of the prisoner's natural life and eliminates the possibility of that person ever reforming and becoming a functioning member of society. They maintain that it's equivalent to the death penalty because the prisoner will die in jail. A life sentence is seen as being particularly unjust when inflicted on juvenile offenders. In many countries, it is seldom or never imposed on those under 18; in others, the life sentence is reserved for murder convictions only.

Those in favor of sentencing violent criminals to life without parole also see it to some degree as a substitute for the death penalty. They argue that it has the same effect, but unlike death it can be reversed if evidence ever emerges that proves the prisoner innocent. They also claim that it costs less than a death sentence which usually engenders endless appeals which can drag on for years. Since there's no chance of release under a life without parole sentence, it is still considered effective in protecting the public from dangerous criminals according to its proponents.

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