By Christopher Zoukis
Take a life, and spend your life in prison. It’s the “fair” second-degree murder sentence in Louisiana. Lately, however, there has been some push back against this sentence in the state, and since Louisiana is one of just two states left in the U.S. that has a mandatory life sentence without parole for second-degree murder, it’s easy to see why this is being questioned.
Mandatory sentencing is a higher form of the zero-tolerance school policies that have lead so many children into the school-to-prison pipeline. When the circumstances surrounding an offense are not considered, people wind up in jail for crimes such as self-defense. Zero tolerance and mandatory sentencing policies also fail to take into consideration the changes a person makes during their lifetime. An offender that completely rehabilitates behind bars but has no chance of release is not likely to be motivated to continue his or her good behavior, or to contribute to society.
Examples of mandatory sentencing in action are seen in the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, where Sandra Starr is serving a life sentence.
Growing up with an abusive stepfather, Starr found escape and acceptance with the wrong crowd. She fell into an abusive relationship and had a daughter. One day, as the father of her child choked her, she shot him. Under the mandatory sentencing law, Starr received a life sentence.
Another inmate, Sabrina Parks, teaches seminary classes behind bars. During the 36 years she has been incarcerated, she has completely turned her life around and now spends her days helping others. However, under the mandatory sentencing law of Louisiana, Parks, who entered prison at 24 years old, can never expect to leave, regardless of how she has changed over the last three decades.
Mandatory sentencing hurts Americans in more ways than one. Confinement is hard on the body and mind, making it difficult to age gracefully in prison. Many of the aging prison population are on medication or undergoing medical treatments, and that cost comes out of American’s pockets. Depending on where an inmate is housed, the annual cost to maintain a prisoner is approximately $20,000 – $40,000 per year at the federal and state level, and can be as high as $60,000 in a supermax, and $900,000 for extremely high-security detainment centres like Guantanamo Bay.
Not every offender that is behind bars is dangerous, and when they lack the ability to rejoin society it costs everyone. Parents and grandparents remain separated from their children, and those children are often bullied for having a relative in jail – bullying that easily leads to mental and social challenges for the child. Reformed lifers that need medical care do not have the opportunity to be in the workforce and contribute financially or otherwise to the economy that supports them. Those incarcerated for an act of self-defence lose out on a life of freedom.
Recently, proposed legalisation would have seen parole offered to Louisiana prisoners that have served 20 years and are approaching age 45. To date however, this chance has not become a reality. But for inmates like Starr, just knowing that people on the outside are fighting for the lifers on the inside is enough. “Hope is all you have throughout your whole life to hold onto,” Starr noted in a media interview. “Don’t let hope die.”
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.