Buffalo Human Rights Law Review


Alexis DiCarlo

First Page


Document Type



In Copyright


This Article will analyze the constitutionality of life without parole under the U.S. Supreme Court’s test for categorical bans on sentencing practices. This article first addresses the cruelty of prison and how that affects individuals with life sentences specifically. Next, it will analyze life without parole under the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment analysis, starting with examining evolving standards of decency. In doing so, this article will address how the U.S. operates with respect to sentencing compared to the rest of the world. Importantly, it will engage in a culpability analysis, following the Supreme Court’s logic, that ultimately favors abolition of the sentencing practice. It argues that the typical person committing a crime does not have true moral depravity due to the average incarcerated person being impacted, at some point in their life, by poverty and trauma, with few resources available to address these challenges. Both poverty and trauma affect a person’s brain development and decision-making, which diminishes their personal culpability. As such, violence typically does not reflect a person’s fundamental moral defects, but reflects one’s circumstances and background. Because an unacceptable amount of individuals sentenced to life without parole are not so morally culpable as to deserve the harshest life sentence, imposing life without parole generally does not meet the Court’s culpability requirements. Finally, this article will conclude that life without parole does not adequately achieve the four main penological goals, and these goals may be reached by far less oppressive means.

Based on evolving standards of decency, the culpability of the typical person engaging in crime, and an analysis of the four main penological goals, life without parole is unconstitutional under the Supreme Court’s test, as it violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.