Life Without Parole: Emergence of a Late-Twentieth-Century American Punishment


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships




Life sentencing has long existed in the United States, but the emergence of a particularly extreme form—life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP)—is a contemporary development. In recent years, the number of LWOP-sentenced prisoners has increased dramatically, even as bipartisan reform efforts seek to reduce prison populations. This dissertation begins by investigating the history of life sentencing and other practices under which prisoners faced the remainder of their natural lives in prison, in order to generate insight as to what makes the phenomenon of LWOP unique. The study then turns to state-level research, focusing on transformations in laws and practices as well as the understandings of key actors—including the anti-death-penalty movement, the United States Supreme Court, and state legislators and prison administrators—to uncover the conditions and processes of LWOP’s rise.