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Life Sentences Spike in Recent Years – Especially in Utah

Life Sentences Spike in Recent Years – Especially in Utah

A recent research study and news reports have revealed an increase in the number of prisoners across the nation – and particularly in Utah – sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

In a report released in September 2013, The Sentencing Project found that since 1984, the number of life sentences has quadrupled to an “unprecedented level.” A survey of all 50 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization reported that of the approximately 160,000 prisoners sentenced to life nationwide, 50,000 are not eligible for parole – an increase of 22% since 2008.

In Utah, data gathered by The Sentencing Project supported independent research by The Salt Lake Tribune that found 105 first-degree felony offenders were serving life sentences, with another 1,943 prisoners serving five years to life on first-degree felony convictions.

Additionally, research shows the chances that any of those prisoners will be paroled are becoming increasingly slim as the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole exercises its power under the state’s indeterminate sentencing scheme. The Sentencing Project noted that prisoners tend to be incarcerated longer in states with indeterminate sentencing.

In recent years the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole has negated the possibility of release for dozens of prisoners, since the state legislature granted the board unprecedented authority. The courts, in response to legal challenges from prisoners denied parole, have thus far affirmed the board’s power to do so.

According to The Tribune, of the 105 prisoners serving “board-issued natural life sentences” in the Utah Department of Corrections as of October 2012, 73 – or 68% – of those sentences were issued within the previous four years.

One such prisoner, Elroy Tillman, 78, was sentenced to die for a murder conviction in 1982, but three years later was resentenced to five years to life. Tillman believed he would someday be released, but in 2009, after serving more than 25 years, the board snatched away his possibility of parole and decided he should die in prison.

In one of several legal challenges to the board’s authority, Tillman argued before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that the “illegal natural life prison sentence” imposed by the board was unconstitutional. But in August 2012 the appellate court ruled that there was nothing unlawful about the board’s action. See: Tillman v. Bigelow, 484 Fed. Appx. 286 (10th Cir. 2012).

“I’m just saying that the board is out of control,” Tillman said. “They’re giving people sentences that are not even on the books. The board thinks they’re a court and want to retry the crime.”

A spokesman for the Board of Pardons and Parole vehemently denied that board members arbitrarily and routinely impose life sentences through parole denials, instead blaming prosecutors who opt against seeking the death penalty for first-degree felony offenders.

“The board doesn’t sentence anyone but rather has discretion about releasing people who have a first-degree felony indeterminate sentence, which comes down through a judge or jury, in which ‘up to life’ provides the possibility of serving one’s natural life in prison,” insisted board spokesman Jim Hatch. “Only a judge or jury can sentence someone to life without parole, which we don’t get involved in, and there are more of those sentences occurring in recent years in lieu of prosecutors seeking the death penalty.”

Nowhere else in the country, The Tribune reported, is there a sentencing structure as unique as Utah’s. Judges and juries still determine a defendant’s guilt or innocence, but if found guilty, defendants receive indeterminate sentences “as set by lawmakers.” The parole board ultimately decides “how much retribution to exact and whether redemption is possible.”

First-degree felons in Utah – including those convicted of murder, rape, child kidnapping, aggravated burglary, arson and possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute near a school – are subject to a natural life sentence at the board’s discretion. Most who are convicted of murder will wait at least 22 years, and possibly longer, before coming up for parole. Those who receive board-issued life sentences, according to The Tribune, tend to be “murderers, rapists, pedophiles and repeat offenders.”

The board’s actions have prompted calls for criminal justice reform in Utah. Writing in a joint editorial published in The Tribune on August 22, 2014, Kent Hart, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Anna Brower, public policy advocate for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, chronicled faults in the current system.

“The board is not required to follow the sentencing guidelines designed by our Sentencing Commission,” they wrote. “It does not need to provide a justification when it deviates from the sentencing guidelines, even when it exceeds the recommended sentence by 100 percent, 300 percent or 500 percent. There is no appeals process for parole decisions.”

They added: “The parole board is not required to justify its decisions to any person or institution. It does not report to the Legislature, the governor or the Utah Supreme Court. There is, literally, no other state system that functions in this way.”

Hart noted that according to studies, natural life sentences “may help our sense of justice and retribution, but ultimately [are] a waste of money and a waste of human life.”


Sources: The Salt Lake Tribune,


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