Currently, in the United States approximately 130,000 persons are serving a life sentence. To put this into perspective: This is the size of an entire city like Apeldoorn, Enschede or Amersfoort. Some of these individuals are eligible for parole – others are destined to spend the rest of their lives behind bars. Although the United States is often used as a scary example of the extremes of punishment, in the Netherlands we are well heading in that direction: While throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the number of people sentenced to life in prison could be counted on one hand, since the beginning of this century, those sentenced to life in prison has risen to 28. Some suggested that the number of homicides increased, or the nature of homicide has become crueler, hence demanding harsher punishment. The opposite appears to be true: Nationwide, the number of homicides has been steadily declining, and the nature of homicides has not changed much over the last decades. Rather, we have punished such offenders more severely, resulting in overall longer sentences, including an increase in the number of life sentences.
The easy solution to deal with homicide offenders is to embrace a punitive philosophy of ‘lock ‘m up and throw away the key’. The more difficult course is to accept the possibility that even people who have committed serious crimes may so develop as to be able to live safely in society. The figures very much support this perspective: Contrary to public perception, offenders who have committed homicides are the least likely of all offenders to recidivate and highly unlikely to repeat their violent crimes. Specific recidivism (i.e. committing another homicide) among these offenders is very rare, ranging from 1 to 3 per cent. Also if we look at other measures of recidivism, such as re-arrest, homicide offenders show the lowest re-arrest rates compared to other groups of violent offenders; and these arrests mostly involve parole violations or new drug charges, rather than new (violent) crimes.
The effects on the individual of going to prison are well documented. Ex-prisoners earn less money during their lifetimes, find it harder to stay employed, are less likely to marry, and suffer a range of medical and psychological problems. For those incarcerated for decades on end, these effects are exacerbated. Long-term imprisonment constitutes an extreme on many fronts: On the one hand, it entails considerable deprivations and requires substantial and long-term allocations of scarce correctional resources; on the other, long-term imprisonment may cause harm to inmates, and may hence negatively impact their likelihood to do well after release.
The serious crimes of many long-term prisoners make this group unattractive in terms of public and political support for innovative policies. However, there is little evidence that so far, research has had any role in the adoption of long-term confinement, despite calls in recent years for more evidence-based policy. Now is the time to change the tide.