People can only live once. So what’s the point of judges sentencing people to multiple life sentences? There are actually valid reasons for this strange-sounding criminal penalty, including the real meaning of “life” imprisonment and how the judicial system works. Here’s why courts in California give multiple life sentences and why it makes sense from a legal perspective.
How do Life Sentences Work?
In California, judges have the discretion to sentence offenders to two kinds of life sentences, determinate and indeterminate. Indeterminate life sentences are those where an individual can eventually apply for parole after they serve a minimum amount of time in prison. However, they could spend the rest of their life behind bars if parole is never granted. These sentences are issued in terms of “15 years to life,” “20 years to life,” or “25 years to life,” meaning someone will become eligible for parole after 15, 20, or 25 years, respectively.
Determinate life sentences have a fixed period of imprisonment that lasts until the individual dies because the judge specifies that they must spend “life in prison without the possibility of parole.” When most people think of ” life sentences,” they think of these determinate penalties because the sentence is firmly life imprisonment. These sentences are reserved for the most serious offenses because they eliminate any possibility that someone will ever be released.
Why do People Get Multiple Indeterminate Life Sentences?
The simplest reason defendants are sentenced to more than one life sentence is that they were given an indeterminate life sentence, which must be served consecutively, meaning one must be completed before the next starts. Judges often use these sentencing guidelines to extend the minimum time a defendant must stay in prison before they can apply for parole.
When someone receives two or more of these indeterminate sentences, they must serve the minimum time in prison for all of the sentences together before they can hope to be released. If someone was sentenced to two terms of “15 years to life,” for example, they must wait 30 years before applying for parole.
What’s the Point of More Than One Life Sentence?
It’s easy enough to understand how consecutive sentencing could influence a judge to give someone more than one sentence of 15, 20, or 25 years to life. But with no chance of parole, what is the benefit of sentencing someone to more than one determinate life sentence?
First, as a procedural matter, America’s criminal justice system often requires judges to give a sentence for each crime someone is convicted of. So if a serial killer is found guilty of killing five people, the judge must issue a ruling for each of the five convictions. These hefty penalties are often a sign of how awful a criminal act is, as mass murderers are often given many life sentences, all without parole.
Aside from ensuring that someone is penalized for each offense they commit, there is another benefit to ensuring judges issue a sentence for each crime —it’s easier to handle appeals. The United States allows ample chances for individuals to appeal their crimes. By sentencing someone to life imprisonment more than once, the judge can help ensure someone convicted of a heinous crime stays behind bars, even if they can successfully appeal one of the convictions.
For example, if someone sentenced to life without parole for five counts successfully appeals his case on the grounds of police misconduct in four of the victim’s cases, then even if those four convictions are overturned, he still has one conviction left. If one term of life imprisonment was blanketly given for all crimes someone commits, they could avoid all consequences for their actions if they successfully appealed just one of the convictions.
Avoiding These Devastating Consequences
Some crimes carry a mandatory life sentence, and the only discretion the judge has is whether to issue an indefinite or definite sentence. But other crimes give the District Attorney and judge more leeway. Violent crimes involving the use of guns and serious sex offenses often carry potential life penalties. A plea negotiation with the District Attorney can reduce the sentence to an indeterminate or non-life sentence.
Many of those sentenced to lifetime imprisonment are only given this penalty because they had previous strikes under the state’s three-strikes law. A good lawyer may be able to have one or both of someone’s previous strikes ignored for sentencing purposes if they have been charged with a third strike. This process is commonly called “striking a strike.” While ignored strikes remain on someone’s record and can count against them later, this can help them avoid a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life.
If you have been accused of any crime that may result in life imprisonment, please call Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050 as soon as possible to discuss your case.