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DROP LWOP: Fighting Life Without Parole Sentences

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Multi-cultural group of women posing in front of a heavy wood door in a marble-walled hallway. They’re wearing black T-Shirts that read “DROP LWOP” in big white letters.

Life Without Parole (LWOP) means a living death sentence. Dropping LWOP is a step towards abolition.

 “Listen! Hear the words of a 79-year-old woman who has been in prison for 38 years on Life Without Parole (LWOP). Life without parole is a slow death sentence. It eats away hope – for the people inside, for their families. It is not justice. Drop LWOP!” – Doris Roldan (serving LWOP at California Institution for Women)

“An LWOP sentence is not an alternative to the death penalty, it is a slower, more devastating death penalty. An LWOP sentence presumes at the time of sentencing, even if the person is only 19 years old, that there is no possibility of rehabilitation.”  – Jane Dorotik, former LWOP

“Nothing is worse than knowing that this is forever. That no matter what, how hard you try and how much you’ve changed, you will still die in here…” – Boualy (serving LWOP)

Four out of ten people sentenced to California’s prisons – more than 5,200 people – are serving Life Without Parole (LWOP, pronounced el-wop) sentences A bill that would significantly limit this inhumane sentence, SB 300, is being heard in the Assembly after passing the California Senate. The DROP LWOP Coalition is organizing support for SB 300 as one step toward our goal of ending LWOP, and one step closer to abolition of prisons altogether.

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During the last 50 years, numerous laws have been passed requiring judges to impose the death penalty or life without parole sentences for an expanding number of crimes. Repression was the government’s response to the Black liberation struggle, the Puerto Rican independence movement, and other resistance efforts of the 1960s and ‘70s. Harsh sentences became a hallmark of “tough on crime” policies, which increased criminal penalties for drug use through the decades-long War on Drugs. Racism in the courts and in sentencing was fundamental to the drive to mass incarceration, and resulted in vastly disproportionate imprisonment of Black and Latinx people. Since 1980, women have gone to prison at twice the rate of men, as prison sentences became routine for economic crimes.

In the 1990s, California voters expanded the use of life without parole sentences through adopting six different ballot initiatives. The new laws expanded prosecutors’ discretion to charge LWOP as a way to secure plea agreements and reduce their caseloads. This particularly affects poor people and people of color, who may depend on Public Defenders and therefore get poor representation in court. People with the fewest resources to fight extreme sentences are the most likely to receive an LWOP sentence. The new laws also made LWOP or the death penalty mandatory for certain crimes, which removed judicial discretion in sentencing.

As a result of these historical developments, four out of 10 people in California prisons are condemned to death or living the rest of their life in prison, with or without the possibility of parole. The result of these extreme sentences is tremendous suffering and social cost, a devasting impact on thousands of children and families, and the slow destruction of human beings.

Youth, people of color sentences to LWOP

When she was in high school, Lakeesha met an older man on the Internet and started a relationship, which quickly turned abusive. Just weeks after she turned 18, her abuser murdered her boss in a jealous rage. After several years of beatings and abuse, Lakeesha escaped from the relationship and reported the murder to the police. She was arrested as an accomplice and sentenced to LWOP.

The majority of people serving LWOP in women’s prisons are survivors of abuse, including intimate partner battering, childhood abuse, sexual violence, and trafficking. Among the 200 people serving LWOP in California’s women’s prisons, 90% were convicted as “aiders and abettors” and 87% had no prior conviction. Many of these women were forced into committing crimes through domestic partner abuse.

Although Black and Latinx people make up about 40% of California’s population, 70% of everyone sentenced to LWOP is from these communities, exposing the systemic racism of the criminal legal system. The most common age for people to receive an LWOP sentence is just 19, and for 71% of the people sentenced to LWOP, this was their first offense.

No matter what their crime, everyone serving a life without parole sentence expects to live every day of the rest of their life locked up behind razor wire, with no control over any aspect of their future and almost no possibility of release. The DROP LWOP Coalition is working to end LWOP and other forms of extreme sentencing because everyone has the potential to change as a person, and to contribute to family and community. We advocate that everyone should be eligible for parole review, and the opportunity to show they are ready for release.

A lifetime of ‘no’

To face the rest of your life living in prison, with almost no chance for release, no way to reunite with your family, no freedom of movement, and no control over your life has a terrible psychological cost. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) places a low priority on programing and rehabilitation for people serving LWOP because they will never be released or return home. The daily prison existence of someone sentenced to LWOP is full of NO’s: NOT eligible for any form of medical parole, including during COVID-19; NOT eligible for good time or legal assistance with appeals; NOT eligible for re-sentencing opportunities. LWOP prisoners are excluded from the highest paying prison jobs; excluded from vocational training and college courses; excluded from self-help groups; and last on any wait list for programing or educational opportunities. People sentenced to LWOP also suffer financially since they are eligible only for the lowest-paying prison jobs and have the highest restitution requirements.

A living death sentence

LWOP is essentially incarceration until death – winning release is complicated and confusing. Once someone serving an LWOP sentence has exhausted all their appeals, the only chance for possible release is commutation by the Governor. Commutation is a complex process that involves first applying and winning an interview for commutation from the Governor, then hearings before the Board of Parole Hearings. A minor modification of LWOP in 2015 granted a parole hearing after 25 years of prison to someone if their offense was committed when under the age of 18. Unfortunately, this reform was not retroactive, and does not apply to people currently serving LWOP sentences.

For everyone sentenced to LWOP, the fight for freedom requires courage, perseverance, and patience. The commutation and parole process is unwieldy, inaccessible, years long, and difficult to understand. Assisting and supporting people with this process is a crucial part of what the DROP LWOP Coalition does.

Organizing against LWOP- inside and out

“Organizing on the inside was difficult but needed to happen. There was no place or way to meet; administration had fear that us LWOPs meeting together would be power in numbers… We knew that we still needed to fight for freedom even though we’re basically condemned to a death sentence, for us in general population. LWOP is a walking death sentence.” — Kelly Savage, released from an LWOP sentence

In 2016, voters in California faced two ballot initiatives about the death penalty. Women serving LWOP sentences came out strongly against both ballot propositions, urging people to recognize that LWOP sentences are “a living death.” They argued that LWOP sentences are NOT an acceptable alternative to the death penalty, and that LWOP should be eliminated entirely. Their political leadership and direction resulted in an organized DROP LWOP campaign, initiated by California Coalition of Women Prisoners (CCWP).

CCWP joined with other organizations to form the DROP LWOP Coalition: Families United to End LWOP (FUEL), Felony Murder Elimination Project, and CURB (Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a statewide prison abolition coalition). Over 100 organizations have signed on to support Coalition campaigns, and the heartbeat of the Coalition is all the family members and friends of people serving LWOP who are organizing together. The Coalition actively helps people with their clemency campaigns, gathering letters of support from family and community members. We’ve organized several statewide demonstrations in Sacramento to pressure the Governor and affect legislators and public policy. The Coalition circulated an Open Letter to Governor Brown advocating for him to release people – an effort that contributed to Brown granting clemency to a record number of people, including many who had been sentenced to LWOP. We’ve renewed our call with Governor Newsom. Our goal is to afford relief to those currently serving this sentence, no matter the conviction, through legislative change, commutations, pardons, resentencing, and public awareness about the injustice of the LWOP sentence.

In September 2018, the DROP LWOP Coalition held our first statewide strategy session, highlighting testimony and proposals from people recently released from LWOP sentences. Since then, we’ve been organizing through the collaboration of four workgroups.  The Clemency Now workgroup provides direct support to people beginning the clemency process by filing their own clemency petitions with the governor. Our Outreach team is contacting community organizations of all types to educate them about the injustices of LWOP and to get people involved. Our Media workgroup uses social media, press conferences, letter-writing campaigns and a variety of other methods to publicize our advocacy actions. And our Legislative team is working to pass legislation that reduces LWOP sentencing, and creates avenues to release for people already sentenced to LWOP.

One example of our legislative advocacy is SB 300, currently in the Assembly. SB 300 will reform aspects of California’s felony murder special circumstances law, limiting when the death penalty or LWOP may be imposed. It will also restore discretion to judges about whether to sentence a person to LWOP or a parole-eligible sentence. The Coalition is organizing support by reaching out to individuals in organizations all over the state, educating constituents to express their support for SB 300 to their legislators.

Extreme sentences: The lifeblood of mass incarceration

Since 1984, the number of people serving life sentences nationwide has quadrupled, with LWOP far outpacing parole-eligible sentences. Now one out of seven people in prison is serving life. It was increasing use of sentence enhancements and LWOP that fueled the 300% explosion of California’s prison population from 1985 to 2006. Extreme sentences funnel a continuous supply of human beings into the prison system. Practically, ending LWOP will make more people eligible for parole, potentially reducing the number of people in prison and closing more prisons in California.

But public opinion must change for prison abolition to be a possibility. After California voters approved “tough on crime” ballot measures, LWOP sentences proliferated; this made them seem routine, deflating public outrage. Over the years, LWOP has also been portrayed as a “humane” alternative to the death penalty, giving LWOP an undeserved reputation of social acceptability. Presenting LWOP as a humane alternative to execution minimizes the human suffering of everyone impacted by all extreme sentences, and the costs to society as a whole.

LWOP and extremely long sentences damage families and communities. Maintaining family connections while someone is locked up creates ongoing financial and emotional stress. Families are separated every day in California’s courtrooms, and extreme sentences mean parents aren’t present to raise their children. This can lead to lifelong damage to those children’s health, and contributes to generations of families following each other to prison. Ending life without parole sentences will give hundreds of human beings a second chance, and win the reunification of thousands of people with their families and communities. Ending LWOP sentences in California will also allow taxpayer dollars to be spent on education, social services, drug treatment, and reentry instead of building and maintaining prisons. Ending the LWOP sentence here will contribute to a growing national effort to end extreme sentencing and allow for regular parole reviews for everyone. Changing the sentencing structure itself is one way we can stop feeding the prison system with human lives. Reforms that reduce the number of people in prison now, as well as those who facing sentencing in years to come, are key to any abolitionist strategy.

How can you support the Drop LWOP campaign?

  1. Ask every organization you are associated with to educate their members about LWOP.
  2. Sign the Open Letter to Governor Newsom asking him to grant more commutations for people sentenced to LWOP.
  3. Contact [email protected] to schedule an educational presentation and discussion.
  4. Join one of our ongoing workgroups, to develop the campaign and strategize.
  5. Help us pass SB 300. We are reaching out to Assembly Members from every district, to educate them about SB 300 and win their support. You can help pass this legislation — we are recruiting people from all over the state to learn more about LWOP and help win the support of their legislators.

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