Unlike some of my friends, I can imagine situations where the death penalty would be justified. (That doesn’t mean I think there’s a way to make it work under U.S. legal and social conditions.)

But life-without-parole – accepted by some as a superior alternative – strikes me as almost always unjustified. Even if you agree with me that sometimes it’s possible to say “This person deserves to die,” how could you possibly say convincingly “The person this person will become in fifty years deserves to be in prison until he dies?”

That’s especially true, of course, when the Lw/oP sentence comes from a stupidly sadistic mandatory-sentencing law, of the kind we still have on the books federally and in some states, and as the result of gross failures of prosecutorial discretion.

That said, do I get to make an exception for Whitey Bulger? Though note that he was charged with racketeering rather than drug dealing, so though he drew two life sentences plus five years (a rather metaphysical verdict, if you read it literally) he didn’t actually get Lw/oP.

Footnote And no, though I can understand the politics of the situation, I can’t actually justify President Obama’s failure to commute a bunch of these sentences. If the pardon process is too opaque, then appoint three while male conservative Republican retired federal judges as an unofficial “clemency committee,” with a pre-commitment to commute any sentence for which they unanimously recommend commutation.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.