Book Review: The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences (The New Press, 2018) by Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis

Review by Christopher Santiago
Columbia, SC

More than 200,000 people are serving life sentences in the United States. That’s more lifers than in any other country, and despite declining crime rates, their number is growing.

In The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences (2018), Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis of The Sentencing Project succeed in drawing from a wide range of sources plenty of evidence to make their case against life imprisonment. They explain how life sentences conflict with human rights norms, contradict the principles of rehabilitation, contribute to mass incarceration, and result in diminishing returns for public safety as prisoners “age out” of criminal behaviors. Life sentences disproportionately affect vulnerable populations and people of color while having little or no deterrent effect on crime.

The book provides a roadmap for research-based criminal justice reform and policy recommendations at a time when there is bipartisan support for decarceration in America. “To lay the groundwork for a realistic challenge to mass incarceration and to provide a better approach to public safety,” the authors write, “sentences in American prisons should be capped at a maximum of twenty years, except in circumstances in which the individual still represents a clear threat to public safety.”

Mauer and Nellis thoroughly debunk the notion that life sentences are an alternative to the death penalty. They show that life imprisonment is a more protected from of the death penalty with less procedural safeguards and public scrutiny. At the top of the sentencing scale, life sentences exert upward pressure on the severity of all other sentences, resulting in longer prison terms that distort how criminal justice resources are allocated. Aging prisoners cost twice as much as younger prisoners to house and are far less likely to reoffend. If those funds were reallocated to reentry services, education, employment, housing, and substance abuse treatment in under-resourced neighborhoods, the book argues, they would produce better outcomes for public safety.

Spread throughout the book are six profiles of lifers written by award-winning author and former lifer, Kerry Myers. It’s hard to read the profiles without pangs of sympathy for these six people. Lifers are condemned to live in hopelessness and despair, with little reason to pursue an education or refrain from violence. But these stories reveal, again and again, that humans have the capacity for positive change and personal transformation. They deserve a chance at redemption.

“It is long past time to join the rest of the democratic world by scaling down the excessive nature of punishment that has become the hallmark of mass incarceration.”

It’s time to end life imprisonment. For more information, visit ■

Christopher Santiago is a prisoner serving life without parole in the South Carolina Department of Corrections.