Question: When is LWOP not really LWOP?
Answer: Whenever their lips are moving.
Now that might be a bit harsh, but not by much. As Kent's post shows, the promise that killers will permanently be taken off the street by LWOP, just as much as they would be by the death penalty, cannot be relied upon. And this is not merely because some future legislature might act to restore parole across the board. It's because many of those those pushing LWOP right now as a death penalty alternative don't really mean it. It is, like the movement for a death penalty "moratorium" -- you know, the "moratorium" with no ending date -- a bait-and-switch.
A few years ago, Judge Ken Starr and I debated two distinguished abolitionists, Sam Millsap and Byron Stevenson, at the National Press Club, http://pewforum.org/events/?EventID=122. Toward the end of the debate, I asked my opponents whether they would pledge, if LWOP were to replace the death penalty, that they would not seek to have LWOP sentences modified. Sam took the pledge. Byron, however, had a distinctly different approach:
My view is that punishment should be appropriate. I think the death penalty is always inappropriate. There are lots of clients whom I've represented who I know will never be prepared to reenter society. I don't hide that fact... But there are some other clients who I think can, and I think that question should be based on information in a particular case. If we think the death penalty is illegitimate we should get rid of it. And if there are people who are concerned about what happens after, we should deal with that. It's just the promise of what more fairness might people be seeking, and we're going to seek all the fairness that can be sought.
Translation: It's not just the future legislature we need to worry about. It's the lawsuit to be filed two seconds after the death penalty abolition bill is signed -- the lawsuit claiming that LWOP is merely a slow motion death penalty; that it turns its back on "all the fairness that can be sought;" and that therefore is just as unacceptable as capital punishment and should share its fate.