What is Life Without Parole?

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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 06 February 2020
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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 the possibility of 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.


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 the possibility of 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 the possibility of 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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Post 3

@bythewell - If you want to be utterly practical about it, then the death penalty should be the better option than life in prison. The only reason it costs so much is because of endless appeals. And those are usually not a matter of proving innocence, but rather proving different levels of guilt and whether those should be punished by death.

If we're purely trying to save the State trouble and money, then a swift death penalty is the way to go. Either that, or they should just abolish it altogether.

Post 2

@KoiwiGal - I think it depends on whether you think that life in prison should be about rehabilitation or about punishment. In theory, most people will consider it to be about punishment, but when you operate a prison with that as the end goal, you end up creating worse criminals and more work for yourself.

If you've got someone who is going to be in prison for the rest of their life, they are still a human being and putting them in solitary or keeping them deprived of basic human needs is only going to make them more difficult to control.

I think that restitution is important, but that vengeance should not be given any kind of priority, because it just

leads society down a dark path. So life in prison should be about the criminal trying to make up for what they did and being safely contained so they won't hurt anyone else. But that doesn't mean they have to suffer endlessly. And it makes more practical sense for them not to.
Post 1

To some people, the punishment of life imprisonment is actually a worse punishment than a quick death and I think that might be why even people who are for the death penalty are generally not opposed to life without parole as a punishment.

Prison is not a good place to be and often if someone has been given life they will serve a lot of that time in solitary as well.

I suppose it does depend on the country though, as some countries seem to have prisons that are more pleasant than the average retirement home.

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