Criminology DPhil student Marion Vannier took part in the the Stockholm Criminology Symposium that was held from 9th to 11th June. Over 500 criminologists attended the event. The conference presentations and lecturers will be available on Criminology Symposium. Please read below Marion's paper abstract. Her paper will be available online soon.

It is assumed that when LWOP was introduced in California in 1978, it was the result of the decisions made by the Supreme Court on the death penalty. Indeed, when the court first declared capital punishment to be unconstitutional in 1972 a number of states in America introduced life without parole as a substitute. After the Gregg decision reinstated the capital punishment in 1976, states kept LWOP on their books, thereby providing an alternative between state executions and permanent imprisonment for first-degree murder.

An in-depth analysis of California’s sentencing history however suggests that LWOP may have been introduced prior to 1978 for crimes other than murder. As early as the 1920s, anti-death penalty senators and assemblymen used LWOP as a tool to promote ‘anti-hanging’ bills. While these efforts were proven to be unsuccessful, California introduced LWOP as an alternative to the death penalty in the 1930s to permanently close the doors for ‘devilish’ kidnappers and train wreckers. At approximately the same time, then, there were two contradictory trends pertaining to LWOP; a punitive trend that sought to increase the severity of penalties for certain crimes and another more progressive movement that tried to repeal the death penalty. The two forces somehow later collided in 1978 when an initiative was voted upon by the public to introduce LWOP as the alternative to capital punishment for murder. It was the marked success of the earlier punitive trend and, to a certain extent, the unintended consequence of a progressive reform move to abolish the death penalty.

Based on archival data, this paper critically investigates the historical origins of LWOP in California and sheds light on what could be called the unintended consequences of progressive activism. It also illustrates how the design of certain punishments, rather than stemming from a policy following a clear set of goals, can develop as the mere byproduct of other strategies, i.e. abolishing the death penalty or legitimizing it.