Monday 5 May 2014

Natural life in prison                    
In 1980, the United Nations held a crime conference in Caracas, Venezuela and one of the main topics was capital punishment. Nine countries brought in a resolution asking the delegates from the 100 countries attending the conference to have a moratorium for five years on capital punishment so that a study could be done to find a suitable alternative. I was invited to address the conference as the last speaker and give my opinion on that  issue to the delegates. Despite the fact that I am an abolitionist on the issue of capital punishment except when it comes to special kinds of murderers (terrorists who kill, criminals who torture their victims to death, those who commit genocide, serial and mass murderers) I urged the delegates not to vote in favour of the moratorium. My reason for this was (as I said to the delegates) “If capital punishment is still being used as a punishment against murderers, then there will be a stronger effort to abolish capital punishment and replace it with a sentence of natural life in prison.”  The next day, the countries that brought in the resolution, withdrew it. As the years went by, more states in the United States began abolishing capital punishment and replacing it with natural life in prison without parole.   
 Canada abolished capital punishment in 1976. If it wasn’t abolished, then a number of innocent men in Canada who were convicted of murder would have been executed. They are now free to live their lives in society again. One man spent 24 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He was released when the authorities finally discovered who the real murderer was. This is why natural life in prison without parole is a better option than executing murderers. 
 In 1993, a Times survey found, about 20 percent of all lifers in the United States had no chance of parole. By 2004 the number rose to 28 percent Over 159,000 murderers were serving life sentences as of 2012, with just under a third—nearly 50,000 were serving life in prison without parole. As a result, the United States is now housing a large and permanent population of prisoners who will die of old age behind bars. And because they weren’t executed, many were being released because it was later determined that they were innocent of the murders they were previously convicted of committing.                                      

Under the US Federal Criminal Code, with respect to federal offenses committed after December 1, 1987, parole has been abolished for all sentences handed down by the federal system, including life sentences, so a life sentence from a federal court will result in imprisonment for the natural life of the defendant, unless a pardon or reprieve is granted by the President.                        
Here are some of the people who were sent to prison for the rest of their lives.
John GottiBoss of the New York City Gambino crime family (after the murder of the previous boss, Paul Castellano), who died of cancer while in prison, Faisal Shahzad – The Times Square Bomber, who attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square on May 1, 2010,Lee Boyd Malvo – Accomplice of the Beltway Sniper Attacks, Terry Nichols – the accomplice to Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – Attempted to explode a transatlantic flight, Ted Kaczynski – The Unabomber, whose homemade bombs killed 3 people and injured 23 others, and Eric Robert Rudolph – 1996 Olympic bomber, who killed 4 and injured 111 others.
The US Supreme Court in 2005 banned the death penalty for those under 18 who commit aggravated murder. In the case of Graham v. Florida, a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States, in 2010, also held that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide offenses. This means that juvenile offenders who commit murder can be sentenced to life without parole however; the Supreme Court also said in 2012 that two men convicted of killings committed when they were 14 cannot be sentenced to life in prison without at least the possibility of parole.
About 2,500 prisoners in the US are serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed as juveniles and at least 79 were 14 years or younger at the time they committed the murders, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.  Those who were under 18 when they committed the murders will eventually be released as per the Supreme Court’s decision in 2012.     
This means that a juvenile who is 17 years and 11 months who commits the worst possible string of murders and demonstrates great maturity, still cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.     Mind you, he can still be sentenced to 50 or more years in prison.   
Although sentences vary for each state, generally the life imprisonment sentences are mandatory sentences for first degree murder, particularly when the first degree murder is done during the commission of another felony (the felony murder rule), and/or there are other aggravating circumstances present (such as is common for rapes which precede such murders, or the first degree murder of any law enforcement official or other public servant) in states without the death penalty, and as an (or the only) alternative sentence in states that have the death penalty and in federal and military courts. It may be given for ‘drug kingpins’ and ‘habitual criminals’. It has been applied in every state as well as in the federal courts except Alaska and New Mexico. 
Even when a state sentence specifically denies the possibility of parole, government officials may exercise the power to grant amnesty or reprieves, or commute a sentence to time served although that appears to be a rare occurrence.
Under some ‘three-strikes laws’, a broad range of crimes ranging from petty theft to murder can serve as the trigger for a mandatory or discretionary life sentence in California. Notably, the U.S. Supreme Court on several occasions has upheld lengthy sentences for petty theft including life with the possibility of parole and 50 years to life, stating that neither sentence conflicted with the ban on ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Third Strike Law which is also called the Habitual Offender Law enacted by state governments in the United States mandates state courts to impose harsher sentences on habitual offenders who are convicted of three or more serious criminal offenses. They are designed to counter criminal recidivism by habitual offenders through physical incapacitation via imprisonment
Twenty-four states have some form of three-strikes law. A person accused under such laws is referred to in a few states (notably Connecticut and Kansas) as a ‘persistent offender,’ while Missouri uses the unique term ‘prior and persistent offender.’ In most jurisdictions, only crimes at the felony level qualify as serious offenses; however, notably among jurisdictions where misdemeanor offenses can qualify for application of the three-strikes law is California, whose application has been the subject of controversy. 
It is beyond my understanding as to why that court would approve of a sentence of fifty years to life in prison for a California offender whose third
offence was petty theft.

The three-strikes law significantly increases the prison sentences of persons convicted of a felony who have been previously convicted of two or more violent crimes or serious felonies, and limits the ability of these offenders to receive a punishment other than a life sentence. Violent and serious felonies are specifically listed in state laws. Violent offenses include murder, robbery of a residence in which a deadly or dangerous weapon is used, rape and other sex offenses; serious offenses include the same offenses defined as violent offenses, but also include other crimes such as burglary of a residence and assault with intent to commit a robbery or murder. Depending on the seriousness of the current and the prior crimes committed by the offender, the sentence can range from a minimum of 25 years to a maximum of life imprisonment however defendants can be given the possibility of parole with a life sentence. But if the person is in his sixties or over, he will probably die in prison. Of course that depends on how serious his or her crime was. 
Natural life in prison is undoubtedly a severe punishment but it is necessary in certain kinds of criminals who murder their victims. In the past, when Canadian courts sentenced murderers to prison for first degree murder, those criminals had serve a minimum of 25 years before they could apply for parole no matter how many persons the convicted murderers may have killed. However, in Canada, serial killers are rarely if ever released from prison. Clifford Olsen who killed 11 children died at age 71 in prison of cancer. Hs application for parole was repeatedly denied. Now Canada has realized that it is a form of injustice to sentence a serial or mass murderer to only a minimum of twenty-five years in prison. Now if someone kills more than one person, the sentence is increased to 25 years to life for each victim and those sentences are to be served consecutively.
Many years ago, a man in Quebec murdered two children and was sentenced to life in prison. The minimum he would have had to serve was seven years. When he was released, he murdered another two boys. Again he was sentenced to life in prison. This time he wasn`t set free again. He was killed by some other inmate in the prison. Those two young boys who were murdered after that killer was released showed everyone the failure of the justice system in Canada at that time.  

In this century, the gunman convicted in the fatal shooting of Chicago Police Officer Alejandro Valadez was sentenced to 105 years in prison.  .The man’s friend, reputed gang-banger Shawn Gaston, 24, is serving a 125-year sentence for his role in the deadly shooting.
Maksim Gelman, age 24, was sentenced to 25 years to life for each of the four murders that he was found guilty of committing in 2011. Gelman also received the maximum penalty allowed by law for other crimes he committed during a twenty-four hour crime and killing spree that he went on in 2011. His sentences were consecutive so the sentence totals 200 years.
On Jun 20, 2012 in Los Angeles, a Superior Court judge sentenced a convicted killer to 238 years to life in prison for a racially motivated shooting that killed a 14-year-old girl in 2006. The suspect did not pull the trigger. He was standing with a group of neighborhood kids in the Harbor Gateway area when she was fatally shot in December 2006. Judge Stephen Marcus called Alcarez a minor player in the crime, adding that the racially motivated shooting was an attempt to send a message. The judge said that Alcarez was trying to create fear in the neighborhood and do a racial crime by shooting at as many people as possible so as to create this impact in the neighborhood that 'their gang was the toughest, baddest gang The actual gang member who fired the fatal shot that killed the young girl was sentenced to death.
In September 2013, a man convicted of killing nine people, including six monks, during a robbery at a Buddhist temple in metro Phoenix, Arizona  was sentenced to 249 years in prison.

Serial killer Robert L. Yates Jr. was sentenced to 408 years in prison after confessing to 13 murders and one attempted murder.

A number of years ago in the United States, a young man was arrested and charged with murdering a young couple who had given him a ride. While he was waiting for his trial, he murdered a fellow inmate. His sentence for those three murders was most unusual. He was sentenced to 500 years for each murder and the sentences were to be served consecutively.  He filed an appeal saying that the sentence of 1,500 years was ridiculous. The Court of appeal agreed with him. They increased his sentence to 1000 years for each murder and the sentences were to be served consecutively. They concluded that a sentence of 3000 years was far more appropriate.  


Some of these serial and mass killers have to serve their life sentences in solitary confinement. In 1972 when I was invited by the California Department of Corrections to tour their prisons, I visited one prison where an inmate was serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. He was so far from the other prisoners, he couldn’t even hear them. He had been in solitary confinement for at least 8 years when I saw him. He told me that he was bored but he was given reading material and he could watch TV (although it was outside of his cell.)  He indulged in his hobby of painting.  Many years later, he was returned to the general population of the prison.  
A little over half a century ago, I was sent to prison for 15 months for harboring a friend being looked for by the police. During my incarceration, I was put in solitary confinement for four months because I wouldn’t disclose what I knew about the ringleaders of the riot that took place earlier. I had no books, magazines of newspapers to read although I could hear the radio in the distance. To keep my sanity, I began drawing a map on one of the walls and created a puzzle with respect to the map. Years later, I met a fellow prisoner who told me that he ended up in that same solitary cell after I left it and he amused himself trying to solve the puzzle.
It is important that if a prisoner is to be kept in solitary confinement, he has to have some mental activity that will keep him sane.  To deny a prisoner some form of mental activity for an extended period of time is inhumane. Although, I personally don’t give a tinker’s dam (yes, ‘dam’ is the correct spelling) about mass killers, serial killers and terrorists who kill gradually going insane while spending years in solitary confinement without some form of mental stimulation, it is still inhumane and the courts won’t permit it.

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