ACLU releases report on life without parole for 3,278 nonviolent offenders

 The ACLU on Wednesday published an in-depth study of people imprisoned in the U.S. with no chance of parole for nonviolent offenses — including relatively minor drug and property crimes such as taking a wallet from a hotel room or serving as the middleman in the sale of $10 worth of marijuana. The organization found that at least 3,278 prisoners are serving these sentences in federal and state prisons combined. 

“A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses” documents the thousands of lives ruined and families destroyed by sentencing people to die behind bars for nonviolent offenses and analyzes the laws that led to these harsh sentences. The 110 prisoners profiled in “A Living Death” are extreme examples of the millions of lives ruined by the persistent ratcheting up of sentencing laws over the last forty years, according to an ACLU press release. The ACLU says the report makes clear that sentencing practices need to be changed “to make our justice system smart, fair, and humane.”
 
In addition to interviews, correspondence, and a survey of hundreds of prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses, the ACLU based “A Living Death” on court records and data from the United States Sentencing Commission, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and state Departments of Corrections obtained through Freedom of Information Act and open records requests. 

According to the ACLU, key findings from the report include: 

• Life without parole for nonviolent offenses is cruel, inhumane, and wasteful

Sentencing someone to life without the possibility of parole is the harshest punishment possible, except for the death penalty. And yet, the federal government and some states impose this punishment on people for nonviolent drug and property offenses. The federal courts account for 63 percent of the 3,278 life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent offenses. In the federal system, 96 percent are serving LWOP for drug crimes.  More than 18 percent of federal prisoners surveyed by the ACLU are serving LWOP for their first offenses. The remaining prisoners are in Louisiana (429 prisoners), Florida (270), Alabama (244), Mississippi (93), South Carolina (88), Oklahoma (49), Georgia (20), Illinois (10), and Missouri (1). This practice is unnecessarily devastating and wasteful; the ACLU estimates that federal and state taxpayers spend $1.8 billion keeping these people in prison for life instead of more appropriate terms. 

• Life without parole for nonviolent crimes is part of a larger problem—mandatory sentencing and the failed War on Drugs
 
The prevalence of life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent offenses is a symptom of the relentless onslaught of more than four decades of the War on Drugs and policies such as three-strikes and mandatory minimum sentencing. This report is proof: 79 percent of people serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses were convicted of violating our nation’s drug laws.  

The overwhelming majority (83.4 percent) of the LWOP sentences for nonviolent crimes surveyed by the ACLU were mandatory.  In these cases, the sentencing judges had no choice in sentencing due to laws requiring mandatory minimum periods of imprisonment, habitual offender laws, statutory penalty enhancements, or other sentencing rules that mandated LWOP. In case after case reviewed by the ACLU, the sentencing judge said on the record that he or she opposed the mandatory LWOP sentence as too severe but had no discretion to take individual circumstances into account or override the prosecutor’s charging decision.

• LWOP sentences for nonviolent crimes are plagued by racial disparities

There is a staggering racial disparity in life-without-parole sentencing for nonviolent offenses. Blacks are disproportionately represented in the nationwide prison and jail population, but the disparities are even worse among those serving life without parole, and worse still among those serving the sentence for a nonviolent crime. A Living Death also offers the first racial breakdown of the population serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses nationwide: we estimate based on data we received from the federal government and several states, and on our own surveys of people serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses, that 65 percent of them are Black, 18 percent white, and 16 percent Latino, and the disparity is worse in some states.

• A smarter, fairer, and more humane approach is possible

As striking as they are, the numbers documented in this report underrepresent the true number of people who will die in prison after being convicted of a nonviolent crime in this country. The thousands of people noted above do not include the substantial number of prisoners who will die behind bars after being convicted of a crime classified as “violent” (such as a conviction for assault after a bar fight), nor do the numbers include “de facto” LWOP sentences that exceed the convicted person’s natural lifespan, such as a sentence of 350 years for a series of nonviolent drug sales. Although less-violent and de facto LWOP cases fall outside of the scope of this report, they remain a troubling manifestation of extreme sentencing policies in this country.

Many of the nonviolent crimes for which these prisoners are serving life without parole would be more appropriately addressed either outside the criminal justice system altogether or with significantly shorter prison terms, the ACLU concluded.
Read the complete report here: www.aclu.org/livingdeath.

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