While California still tolerates sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles, and Massachusetts has ruled them out entirely, there is variation nationwide in the use of life sentences—with or without the possibility of parole—in all cases and for all people.
An interesting, multi-state report by The Sentencing Project identifies a total of 160,000 people as serving life sentences as of 2012, with 50,000 of them serving LWOP sentences; 10,000 of them serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses; and over 10,000 of them serving life sentences for conduct that occurred before they turned eighteen.
Last year, we covered a report by the American Civil Liberties Union on the status of people serving LWOP sentences for nonviolent drug and property crimes. According to that report, we are in the minority of countries known to impose LWOP sentences at all, and we are virtually alone among our peers in doing so for nonviolent offenses.
Now comes news that Pope Francis has called for the abolition of LWOP sentences. At an October 23 meeting with representatives of the International Association of Penal Law, the Pope called life in prison a hidden death penalty and noted that the Vatican had removed it from its own penal code. He also called for the end of the death penalty and touched on overcriminalization, prison conditions, solitary confinement, and other issues.
Pope Francis said criminal penalties should not apply to children at all, and he denounced a growing tendency to think that the “most varied social problems can be resolved through public punishment.”