The Complaint

Isn't part of the human experience learning from mistakes and becoming better?... DBI strips people of this experience. To be human is to have the ability to live fully within that human experience to be better, it is to exercise that latent capacity that we all have to redeem ourselves."

– Right to Redemption Committee Members Robert Labar, Vernon Robinson, Charles Bassett, and Terrell Carter, sentenced to LWOP in Pennsylvania

The United States’ reliance on death by incarceration (DBI) sentences has increased exponentially since the 1970s and has played a major role in driving mass incarceration. In 2020, 15 percent of the total prison population, or 203,865 people, were serving life or virtual life sentences. This increase in the DBI-sentenced population is further compounded by a decrease in clemency and the uncertainty of parole. The exponential rise in DBI sentences results in an increasing number of people—and a disproportionate number of racial and ethnic minorities—who are condemned to conditions inside of prison that lead to a premature death.

The United States’ use of DBI sentences violates a range of international human rights:

Death By Incarceration as a Violation of the Prohibition on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment

There is widespread international consensus that a system of incarceration that fails to provide meaningful opportunities for individuals to demonstrate rehabilitation, to hope for release, and to be released violates the right to dignity and the prohibition against torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.  This development in international human rights law finds significant parallels in the work of those who are advocating–many from inside prison–for the recognition of a “right to redemption.”  To comply with these human rights obligations, the United States must abolish DBI. 

Death by Incarceration Sentences as a Violation of the Prohibition Against Racial Discrimination

The United States disproportionately sentences racial and ethnic minorities to DBI: an inevitable consequence of a racially discriminatory criminal legal system. More than two-thirds of those serving them in the United States are people of color. According to the Sentencing Project, while in 2020 only 12.4 percent of the US population was Black, 46 percent of all of those serving life sentences nationwide were Black. Consistent with U.N. treaty bodies’ previous pronouncements calling for the abolition of policies that disproportionately subject racial and ethnic minorities to some of the worst consequences of the criminal legal system, such as the death penalty and juvenile life without parole, we are asking the Special Procedures mandates to call for the abolition of all DBI sentences in the United States.

Death by Incarceration as a Violation of the Right to Life

Several empirical studies have found a clear and consistent relationship between rates of incarceration and adverse health outcomes for incarcerated people. The negative health impacts of being incarcerated ultimately lead to a higher probability of premature death: the longer one spends in prison, the shorter one’s life expectancy becomes. United States prisons are “death-making institutions” that create several risks of fatal harm. By permanently placing people in these environments, imposing upon them conditions that lead to premature death, and doing so in violation of international law for the reasons described throughout this letter, DBI sentences in the United States are an arbitrary deprivation of the right to life.

Death by Incarceration as an Arbitrary Deprivation of Liberty for its Failure to Serve any Legitimate Purpose

Under international human rights law, any deprivation of liberty must be justified by legitimate aims and must be proportionate to those aims.  In the context of a deprivation of liberty through incarceration, while rehabilitation must be a central aim of the deprivation, human rights bodies have found that other legitimate aims for incarceration may include retribution, incapacitation, and deterrence.  But in addition to failing to serve the purpose of rehabilitation as described in the complaint, DBI also fails to serve any of these other legitimate aims, resting instead on the political demand for harsher sentences.