Think about the culture shock when you have spent your entire life enjoying freedom—and likely taking it for granted—and the next minute you are arrested and ultimately convicted of a crime carrying life in prison without the possibility of parole. Before that moment, you never had seen the inside of a jail cell. You had never spent your day pacing back and forth in tight quarters. You had never had your every move dictated to you by officials.
Instead, you had the ability to select your own meals. You could call friends and chat with them for as long as you wanted. Your dictated your social calendar. You selected the times you wanted to workout. If you were bored, you could drive down to the local bookstore and buy an unlimited amount of reading material. You had the option of catching a film at the nearby theater. The world was your oyster. Now, all those seemingly simple luxuries are forever stripped away.
No matter what age you are, the new reality of your existence in prison for life is a rude awakening. A sixty-year-old man with no criminal record and a loving family will never have the opportunity to spend time with his family again apart from any allotted prison visitations. He will no longer have the opportunity to travel, fish, go for a jog, or lounge around the house with his dogs. He has no opportunity for parole, no chance for a redo.
A forty-year-old woman with no prior convictions cannot attend her daughter’s piano recitals. She cannot cheer her daughter on from the sidelines as she plays in her soccer games. She will not personally experience her daughter’s coming milestones such as her high-school graduation, her wedding, or the birth of her first child. The now-incarcerated woman cannot provide a shoulder for her daughter to cry on when she does not get the job offer for her dream position or when she breaks her leg. This woman now must learn about these momentous times through second-hand accounts. This is life without the possibility parole.
A twenty-year-old boy who finds himself in prison for life without parole will never enjoy his mother’s home cooking again. He will not have the privilege of finishing his college classes with his friends. He can no longer attend concerts or play video games with his brother. He will not meet the love of his life or ever have a career. His life is forever changed. This is life without the possibility of parole.
Sending any member of society away to prison for life—with no chance of ever living his or her life outside of the sterile, dismal institution setting—when that individual has absolutely no prior criminal record is cruel and unusual punishment. Others may have been in and out of prison for ages for various crimes, but this unlucky first time offender is there for the remainder of his days. Most people get second chances. Most people get third, forth, and fifth chances. But not this individual. He gets life without the possibility of parole.
That sixty-year old man who has been law abiding until this very moment never wants to find himself back behind bars again. Given the opportunity to rehabilitate on the outside, he would be an upstanding member of society. He would stay out of trouble. Similarly, that twenty-year-old boy could grow into a tremendous father, husband, and brother. He could have a successful career. He could mentor younger children on how to avoid the path he initially went down. Instead, the legislature has decided to prevent him from having such an opportunity. It does not matter that as people grow older, they change. It does not matter that people can learn from their mistakes. It does not matter that the forty-year-old version of oneself is always more mature than the twenty-year-old version. The legislature has ruled, and there is nothing that can be done. He will be in prison until the day he dies.
Laws arbitrarily state that individuals who commit certain special circumstances are required to spend their life in prison without the possibility of parole. While the legislature may initially have had good intentions when implementing such laws, it is too severe of a punishment to put everyone convicted of an enumerated offense into prison for life without the possibility of parole. Rules of such gravity should not be one size fits all. Instead, the laws should take into account the entire picture—and not just the picture portrayed on paper by the police department.
A major factor that needs to be considered is the past criminal record of an individual. Someone who has never before committed any sort of criminal offense—whether misdemeanor or felony—should never face life in prison without the possibility of parole no matter how egregious the circumstances are surrounding the crime. A long prison sentence, if needed, can suffice. Similarly, a person whose only criminal conduct is driving on an invalid license fifteen years prior also should not face the scare of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Again, given the minimal criminal record of the individual, such punishment is cruel and unusual.
As long as life without the possibility of parole exists, the laws need to be revamped so as to not unduly punish first time offenders or those with minimal and unremarkable past records. No first time offender needs a punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Further, as long as life without parole remains a sentencing option, youthful offenders who are in prison for life without the possibility of parole should no longer be excluded from youthful offender parole hearings. Likewise, elderly parole programs should not bar first-time offenders over the age of sixty. The punishment needs to fit the crime as well as the individual. Everyone deserves a second chance.