Groups tell Expert Mechanism on Racial Justice and Equality in Law Enforcement: Life imprisonment violates human rights, including bans on torture and racial discrimination
April 28, 2023 – Amid the historic visit of the U.N. Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in Law Enforcement, a coalition of civil rights, legal, and prisoners’ rights groups working on the issue of life imprisonment, also known as Death by Incarceration, released the following statement:
We welcome the EMLER experts and the light they are shining on racial injustice in the U.S. criminal legal system and its roots in slavery and colonialism. Our groups work in coalition with other organizations participating in the visit on many interconnected issues – from policing and immigration enforcement to incarceration, political prisoners, and the death penalty – and we welcome EMLER’s examination of all aspects of the U.S. criminal legal system. We hope EMLER’s areas of focus during its visit include life imprisonment, which we call Death by Incarceration (DBI). This is the term people serving these sentences and their loved ones use to emphasize the reality of their impact: premature death in prison.
We urge EMLER to call for an end of DBI sentences in the U.S. They harm not only individuals but entire communities, rupturing family ties and perpetuating intergenerational cycles of poverty and pain. As we wrote in a submission to EMLER – which supplements a complaint sent to U.N experts in September 2022 – DBI sentences are the devastating consequence of a cruel and racially discriminatory criminal legal system that begins with violent policing and ends with the permanent abandonment of people in prisons, where lives – particularly Black lives – are cut short. While in 2020 only 12.4 percent of the U.S. population was Black, 46 percent of all of those serving DBI sentences nationwide were Black.
Though hardly confined to this country, DBI sentences are more prevalent here than anywhere else: a 2019 study found that more people are serving them in the United States than in the other 113 surveyed countries combined, and that people serving life without parole in the United States make up more than 80 percent of those serving it worldwide. The number of people sentenced to DBI in the United States has grown exponentially since the 1970s, helping to drive mass incarceration. In 2020, 203,865 people were serving DBI sentences. Compounding this rise is the large decrease in grants of clemency and the increasing uncertainty of parole.
DBI sentences are a form of torture. Any sentence that deprives incarcerated people of a meaningful opportunity for release is cruel and inhuman, in violation of the international prohibition on torture. People sentenced to life without parole have no meaningful prospect of release. While people sentenced to other forms of DBI may be technically eligible for parole, parole processes across the United States fail to meet basic human rights standards and cannot be considered meaningful opportunities for release.
Though billed as a crime-fighting tactic, DBI sentences do not, in fact, make communities safer; rather, they divert resources away from systems and approaches that do. Rooted in the legacy of slavery and racial hierarchy, these sentences are common in the United States precisely because they disproportionately harm Black people and Black communities.
We have seen the U.N. influence the debate and policy in the United States on crucial human rights issues. It was U.N. leadership that, for example, contributed to the momentum for change on long-term solitary confinement. We believe EMLER has the capacity and the mandate to do the same on Death by Incarceration.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.