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Taking Life Imprisonment Seriously in National and International Law.

by Dirk van Zyl Smit, Kluwer Law International, 2002, 240 pp.

Taking Life Imprisonment Seriously in National and International Law, by Dirk van Zyl Smit, is a compelling book that addresses the issue of life sentences. It is studiously written and extensively documented, and has a detailed bibliography and tables of legal cases from the United States, England, Germany and other international courts. Meaningful and plentiful statistics are also provided.

The author examines the nature of punishment, which evolved from such historical documents as the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789. He examines the principles of punishment (i.e., society's sanctions of wrongdoers) and such principles as they relate to human dignity, rehabilitation, liberty, legality and due process.

The book then chronicles the development and use of life imprisonment in England, Germany and the United States. It highlights the use of the life sentence and its social, philosophical and political underpinnings, as well as contrasts and compares its use in those countries. It also explores the use of the life sentence in the context of other sentences, such as the death penalty and mandatory sentences.

Van Zyl Smit's research shows that in the enactment and use of the life sentence, there is continued interaction and tension between the politics of its use and the principles of human dignity, liberty and unusual punishment. He adds that there are choices to be made in the use of the life sentence and that legislators and jurists have the choice to not follow popular sentiment, but to take a principled stand in its use.

This is not bedtime reading. This book should be read and seriously studied principally by correctional policy-makers who may influence sentencing policies in their states. It should also be read and used by legislators and jurists. And Finally, Taking Life Imprisonment Seriously in National and International Law would be of benefit to corrections professionals who stand by their commitment to deal compassionately and justly with the subjects of the system.

What is important in this work is less the author's predicament with whether the life sentence is taken seriously and more the nature of punishment as articulated in state codes and its implementation by the courts. I am probably not the only corrections professional who has become numb to the mantra of "getting tough on crime" and has accepted that mantra as a given in the shaping of sentencing and correctional policy. How many of us have lived through the time and even agonized when we saw states double the length of sentences for crimes, institute mandatory sentences and do away with parole? What about the increasing practice of charging juveniles as adults and the three strikes laws? This book's perspective on the principles of punishment exposes the basis of the get tough trend as political and intended to remove discretion from the arbiters of justice. Such a trend is certainly not related to the philosophical basis of punishment developed through ages of Western thought and enlightenment, in which dignity, humanity, liberty and social concerns are factors considered in developing appropriate punishment.

This book is quite thought-provoking. It brings one back to correctional principles that seem to have been lost during the past two decades, when the political pendulum swung to practicality and politics in the development of social and legal policy. Perhaps what this book tells us is that we need to re-examine such policy in light of long-held and thoughtfully developed principles of punishment.

Reviewed by Thomas A Rosazza, president of Rosazza Associates Inc., a criminal justice consulting firm in Colorado Springs, Colo.
COPYRIGHT 2003 American Correctional Association, Inc.
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Author:Rosazza, Thomas A
Publication:Corrections Compendium
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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