Why does the judicial system use the term “life in prison” when most sentences are not actually for the rest of defendant’s life?
Brian Gallini, professor of law in the School of Law, replies:
The answer lies in the type of life sentence pronounced. The preliminary question therefore becomes whether the defendant received a determinate life sentence with defined limits or an indeterminate life sentence that is not precisely defined. Defendants who receive indeterminate life sentences ordinarily do so in a state jurisdiction that allows for parole; in other words, the supervised release of that defendant before the completion of his/her sentence. A defendant sentenced to life in a parole-jurisdiction may become eligible for early release if, upon recommendation by the parole board, the state’s governor agrees with the board’s decision. Given the steady shift in sentencing models toward retributive (i.e., punishing offenders on the basis that prison is the morally appropriate response to crime) and away from rehabilitative (i.e., punishing offenders as a means of reforming them while incarcerated), the chances of a defendant who received a life sentence receiving parole are growing increasingly slim.
In contrast, the defendant who receives a determinate life sentence does so in the form of a life in prison without parole sentence. Defendants who receive a sentence of life in prison without parole – colloquially called “LWOP” – will never have the opportunity for parole and will therefore spend the balance of their natural lives in prison.
To be clear, however, distinguishing between a determinate or indeterminate life sentence is relevant only at the state level. Parole was abolished in federal court in the late 1980s and, accordingly, a life sentence from a federal court will result in imprisonment for the life of the defendant -- unless the President were to grant a pardon or reprieve.