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  • Doug Tjapkes

The number of lifers continues to rise. So does the stupidity behind it!

The wrong idea has taken root in the world. And the idea is this: there just might be some lives out there that matter less than other lives.” Fr. Greg Boyle It wouldn’t be right to go through Black History Month without dealing with the topic of life sentences. The Sentencing Project recently issued a report that has my blood boiling! And it’s not just about racial disparity among lifers. It’s about the stupidity of the whole concept! First a word about The Sentencing Project. It’s an agency that strives for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by producing “groundbreaking research to promote reforms in sentencing policy, address unjust racial disparities and practices, and to advocate for alternatives to incarceration.” Please join me in taking a look at some of this “groundbreaking research.” The number of people serving life sentences in the U.S. is higher than ever before! Complains the report: Extreme punishment for punishment’s sake is now a hallmark of the justice system with little evidence that such an approach produces better public safety outcomes. Here in Michigan, 5,657 prisoners are serving life sentences or virtual life sentences. That’s 15% of the entire state prison population! Not only that, two-thirds of these lifers are people of color. One in five black men in prison are serving life sentences. Readers of this column know that I also grumble about keeping old-timers behind bars...men and women whose release would compromise nothing, jeopardize no one. I’ll simply give you this number. 30% of lifers in Michigan are 55 and older. The Sentencing Project affirms what I’ve been trying to say all along: Lengthy prison sentences ignore the fact that most people who commit crime, even those who have committed a series of crimes, age out of criminal conduct. Life without parole is just unheard of around the world. Other countries see value in preserving human dignity, which means that you aim for rehabilitation and transformation. Just ask the criminologists in Norway. But not here in the U.S. of A. No, sir. We’ve got 55,000 people serving life without parole, each one deserves it, and to hell with the cost of housing, feeding and medical care! The Sentencing Project points out that by de-emphasizing incarceration and scaling back punishment we could then use public resources to support victims and communities to heal and thrive..a path to real crime prevention and true public safety. Louisiana Deputy Warden Perry Stagg says: “I am a staunch Republican conservative, and I believe that life without the possibility of parole...does not make sense in most cases...these are not bad people, but people who did a bad thing, and at some point in their lives they deserve to tell their story...they deserve hope.’” Amen and Amen!

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