The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia’s move to end capital punishment has a major flaw

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Ashley Nellis is a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project and the author of “No End in Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment.”

Any day now, with Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) signature, Virginia will eliminate the death penalty.

The news is cause for celebration. Since 1976, Virginia has executed more people than any other state except Texas. Now, Virginia joins a growing wave of states that have rejected this punishment and chosen to make our criminal justice system more humane, equitable and fair.

But the movement to end capital punishment also has a major flaw. It pushes for another form of in-prison death: life without the possibility of parole. Commonly referred to as LWOP, this sentence is frequently touted as a humane alternative to the death penalty. But LWOP is also deeply problematic and riddled with many of the exact same problems as the death penalty. In the end, sentenced people are still condemned to die in prison, but LWOP sentences receive far less scrutiny by our justice system than death sentences.

Declining support for the death penalty in Virginia and nationally came about because of successful abolition campaigns that pointed to the injustice of the death penalty. Exonerations based on new evidence of innocence and concerns about racial bias, exorbitant costs and the drawn-out appeals process led to a sharp decrease in death penalty sentences.

Since the mid-1990s — when the use of the death penalty peaked — death sentences have declined more than 85 percent. Capital punishment has become difficult to justify as concerns about efficacy, deterrence value, racial bias and morality converge.

But though death sentences have declined, LWOP sentences have exploded, according to a recent report from the Sentencing Project.

At the start of 2020, 55,945 people were serving LWOP sentences, representing an all-time high in the United States, which already holds 83 percent of the world’s LWOP population. The number of individuals serving LWOP is now 22 times greater than the number of people who sit on death row.

There appears to be no sign of letting up, either. The LWOP population has grown 66 percent since 2003, including 4.5 percent in the past four years alone. If we account for the tremendous decline in LWOP among those sentenced as juveniles that has resulted from a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings, there has been a 6.4 percent increase in LWOP since 2016.

Though sentences to life for murder continue to expand, there has also been a troubling expansion in life imprisonment for non-homicide crimes. In Virginia, for instance, 14 percent of the people serving LWOP and virtual life sentences (those in excess of 50 years) have been convicted of aggravated assault.

What’s more, just like death sentences, life sentences are disproportionately likely to affect people of color. One in 5 Black men in prison is serving life. Two-thirds of the people with life sentences are people of color.

Those who support LWOP often have several arguments on hand to defend its merits. Upon examination, these arguments quickly fall apart. For one, there’s the claim that such sentences improve public safety. But many studies have found that extreme punishments such as the death penalty and LWOP do not deter violent crime. Additionally, significant research on offending reveals that in most cases, even individuals who commit serious crimes grow beyond their poor judgment and learn to abide by the law. So locking people up for life is unnecessary.

And then there is the cost argument. Though cost savings are greater with LWOP than the death penalty, this is mostly at the expense of substandard legal protections. To commit just one person to life in prison is at least a $1 million investment for the state. Costs are particularly hefty for folks over the age of 55, who make up 3 in 10 people serving life sentences and often require much greater medical attention and care.

We need to end life sentences for good. At the Sentencing Project, we’re proposing a 20-year cap on life sentences as the best path forward. The proposal is backed by research and the experience of other nations. In Scandinavia, for example, sentences are capped at around 20 years for the most serious offenses. A 20-year cap recognizes that people grow and change and that our laws should always allow for both justice and mercy.

As Virginians celebrate their progress in advancing justice, they must also recognize the work is far from over. The cruelty and immorality of the death penalty still live on as long as life without parole does.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this op-ed: Victims should have a say on ending life without parole in Virginia

The Post’s View: The death penalty is unworthy of America

Jason Flom and Kevin Ring: Virginia should get rid of its mandatory minimums

Nora V. Demleitner: Virginia can be at the forefront of criminal justice reform

Buta Biberaj, Steve Descano and Bryan Porter: It’s time for second chances in Virginia

Tim Kaine: I prayed Virginia would end the death penalty. It finally did — and gave other states hope.