Is it right to use the term ‘life sentence’ for a prison sentence, given this rarely means actual life imprisonment?
It doesn’t matter that a life sentence in our modern times often isn’t literally a life sentence but has an ending or discharge date.
The words “life sentence” is legal and judicial terminology.
It is statutory usage and embodies a whole body of statutory interpretation related to imprisonment.
Those statutory interpretations are augmented or modified by various statutes, legislated words and judicial decisions over time. It is a legal and judicial usage, not a literary or literal one.
It is the same story with words like “malicious,” which has passed into legal and statutory usage to mean “reckless” in some jurisdictions (such as England and Wales).
Is it fair to use ‘malicious’ (articulating with spitefulness) for an act that may have been just reckless?
It’s irrelevant, mainly because the usage isn’t literal or literary, but legal and judicial.
Living the life in Massachusetts
I understand from my reliable source (an ex-convict) that “First Degree” anything (especially homicide) in the U.S. state of Massachusetts really means life. There are no qualifiers — life means life there. Period.
Of course, one could get a pardon (or some other extraordinary thing like that) but that’s exceedingly rare (mainly because it’s not written into the sentencing statutes there).
Then comes “Second Degree” (again, about homicide), and this means life but with the possibility (possibility, mind) of parole after 15 years. My source says almost nobody gets parole on their first shot — at least not when my source was in the slammer. But even if you are given parole, my source says, you’re part of the ‘system’ for life anyway.
My source (and I) have always heard of states where you can be out after seven years. Even an ex-con like my source says he doesn’t know if that’s true at all — it definitely isn’t true in Massachusetts.
So there really is a grain of truth in the saying that “Everything’s illegal in Massachusetts, and everything gets ‘life’ in Massachusetts.”
What it means in most places around the world
‘Life’ sentences are designated that way often because they have no definitive release date. A person therefore could potentially do porridge for life.
Normally in most countries, there is an upper statutory limit to a sentence. There is also a minimum required serving time — usually two-thirds of the original sentence. And in between the upper and the minimum limits is where the matter of parole comes in.
A person serving a 20-year stretch will have to serve at least 14 years and with good behaviour before parole application could even be remotely entertained.
A person serving a fairly short sentence (say, five years) may get out early on parole. Most, however, will serve the full five years no matter what.
A person serving a life sentence could get out on parole too — unless the sentence specifies life with no possibility of parole.
Again, it’s the same routine. Two-thirds minimum serving time done. Good behaviour. But that person has to apply for parole — parole is never automatically given by the authorities.
Before being allowed to apply for parole, the prisoner first has to satisfy various assessments and requirements. He has to appear before a parole board and make his case. Predictably, the board takes its sweet time to deliberate. The board’s decision also has to be assented (approved) by the state or provincial governor or similar higher authority. If the parole application fails, that person stays in prison until he dies.
Of course, parole is a lot of more complicated than that. There’s always a Catch-22 system at play, as this article from The Wrongful Convictions Blog shows. More’s the pity sometimes.
That is the situation with Charles Manson, the infamous American serial killer and cult leader. Owing to the death penalty being abolished in California in 1972, Manson’s original death sentence from 1971 was reset to life with possibility of parole — the sentence available at the time. In 1977, Manson’s original death sentence was reset to life imprisonment. It didn’t matter ultimately. Manson’s parole applications have always been rejected. He is now in his 80s and almost certainly will die in prison. Ergo, actual life sentence.
© Lipsync Lawyer, 11 July 2017. Original text 03 Mar 2016. (B17091)
Featured image via BBC.
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