The suicide of former NFL star and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez is an occasion for thinking about the policy of sentencing people to sentences of life without parole. One of the less noted perversities of capital punishment is that it deflects attention from this subject. Indeed, an innocent person on death row almost certainly has a far better chance of eventual exoneration than someone serving life sentence, because of the far greater per capita resources expended on death penalty cases.
There are currently about 2,900 people on death row, and more than a third of them are in jurisdictions that now almost never execute anyone, most notably California. Meanwhile as of five years ago around 159,000 people in the US were serving life sentences, and nearly a third of those sentences did not include the possibility of parole. Several thousand of the latter sentences were imposed on juveniles, in some cases for crimes committed when the offender was as young as 13. (The US is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life without parole).
Life without parole is a barbaric sentence, that no civilized legal system should tolerate. While there are certainly people who should never be released from prison before they die, that judgment should be made on a truly individualized basis, not by sentencing whole classes of offenders to the certainty of lifetime imprisonment. The fact that life without parole exists in large part as a wedge against death penalty advocates is just another example of the social damage that the continued existence of capital punishment does — as is the fact that so few resources, comparatively speaking, are dedicated to the legal claims of the tens of thousands of people in America serving legally irrevocable life sentences.