American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
Considering Life Without Possibility of Parole or Release
Laura Magnani works with the Youth & Justice Programs of the AFSC Oakland, CA office.
The concern of the American Friends Service Committee with the treatment of persons convicted or accused of crimes in this society is rooted in the Quaker opposition to violence and injustice and the Quaker principle that there is that of God in every person. The AFSC views each individual as a person of worth and value who should be treated with dignity, respect, and humanity, regardless of his or her circumstances in life or how offensive his or her behavior to others has been. We seek through our actions to achieve meaningful communication with all persons-those who victimize others, those who are victims, those who are oppressed-in the expectation that the measure of goodness and truth in each individual seeks expression and can respond.
This conviction has led the AFSC to commit itself to a vigorous program of action to eliminate the evils perpetuated by the criminal justice system. In the past twenty years a new criminal sanction has found its way into statutes in at least 30 states: a life sentence without the possibility of parole or release (LWOP). Although life sentences have been common in all states, there had always been a mechanism for releasing prisoners when it was determined that they had served long enough.
Some have argued that LWOP serves as an alternative to the death penalty. Yet in our day-to-day work we have seen the populations on death row skyrocket at the same time that more and more people are sentenced to LWOP. As of January 1, 1997, there were 3267 people on death row, nationally, and 21,368 people serving life without release. However, LWOP is not only used for capital cases but as a sanction for a wide variety of offenses.
Life without possibility of parole or release makes no allowances for changed behavior, or for reconsideration of the gravity of an offense. It throws away the key. It is a signal that our criminal justice system has given up any goal or possibility of rehabilitation. Although prisoners can continue to appeal to courts for redress, the limitations that have been placed on habeas corpus drastically limit legal appeals for wrongful imprisonment. In AFSC's many years of work with prisoners we have seen people change and we have seen innocent people convicted and punished for crimes they had not committed. We have also seen, first hand, the extent to which people's lives are wasted in prison, through idleness, abuse, neglect, and attitudes of revenge. We have worked closely with families of prisoners, whose lives are deeply and often irrevocably affected. We have documented the many ways that the court and law enforcement systems are highly discriminatory and disproportionately punish poor people and people of color.
It is the policy of the AFSC to create conditions which foster and nurture that of God in every person. Prisons are incompatible with this vision. Therefore, we oppose life without possibility of parole or release and work for its repeal. LWOP removes hope from the lives of prisoners and their families and assumes that people's acts and lives are irredeemable. It also precludes the possibility of the society as a whole changing in its punitiveness towards offenders.