Over the past 30 years, life sentences in the US have expanded nearly five-fold. The “tough on crime” era of the 1980s and1990s brought a wave of longer sentences and stricter parole laws.
Our project explores life sentences in Ohio, and we ground our work in a collaboration with women serving life at Dayton Correctional Institution. In Ohio, most “lifers” have the possibility of parole (89%, compared to 54% nationally), and some of the harshest life sentencing laws, such as “three strikes” and felony murder, do not exist in our state. What can we learn from Ohio? First, even though most people serving life are parole-eligible, few of them are released. Our collaborators dub life sentences “death penalty on the installment plan” because parole denials extend their imprisonment indefinitely. Second, life sentences in Ohio are extreme and overused, even for serious crimes like homicide. Finally, race, class, and gender disparities remain pervasive in the Ohio criminal justice system.
The context of women’s crimes — which often include poverty, abuse, trauma, and male co-defendants — are under-acknowledged at every stage of the process. Furthermore, Ohio’s self-defense and “battered woman syndrome” statutes are inadequate for addressing the realities of women who kill those who abuse them and their children.
Our Point of View
Life sentences provide unique insight into systemic injustices and the punitive philosophy at the core of our criminal justice system. Many people serving life have themselves been victimized, they are disproportionately poor and/or black, and they may not have had adequate counsel or a fair trial (or any trial at all for the vast majority who accept a plea deal). Ohio’s Parole Board routinely denies parole, even to the elderly who have spent decades behind bars and who are unlikely to commit another violent crime.
We would like to see systemic changes that 1) acknowledge the complicated humanity of each situation, 2) better recognize the needs of people in prison who are ill, aging, and dying, 3) make “automatic release” at the time of parole standard practice, and 4) redirect resources from punitive to supportive infrastructure.
My greatest fear is for my whole life to be forgotten except for what happened on one horrible day.