The Punishment Is the Crime

Thousands of Americans are serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses.

Nine years ago, Ronald Washington swiped two Michael Jordan jerseys from a Foot Locker in Shreveport, Louisiana. Although the shirts were on sale for $45 each, they were officially priced at $60, putting their combined value above $100. The difference between the discounted price and the list price was the difference between a misdemeanor punishable by no more than six months in jail and a felony that triggered a life sentence.

Washington is one of the prisoners profiled in a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on nonviolent offenders serving sentences of life without parole (LWOP). There were at least 3,278 such prisoners in the U.S. at the end of 2012, an astonishing number that reflects decades of tough-on-crime policies unconstrained by justice, wisdom, or compassion.

Like many of those prisoners, Washington qualified as a "habitual offender" under a law aimed at incorrigible criminals. But if none of his prior offenses—which included forgery, cocaine possession, theft, and burglary—merited a life sentence, it is hard to see how the addition of shoplifting could possibly justify that penalty.

If Washington's punishment was grossly disproportionate, how should we describe the life sentences imposed on repeat offenders whose so-called crimes involved no victims? At the age of 28, James R. Byers Jr. was sentenced to life under South Carolina's "three strikes" law for a single $10 crack sale; all his prior convictions involved drug offenses.

Kevin Ott was 33 when he began serving a life sentence in Oklahoma for possessing three-and-a-half ounces of methamphetamine while on parole for marijuana charges. Three marijuana offenses, the last involving less than two pounds, triggered a life sentence for 35-year-old Cornell Hood II under Louisiana's habitual offender law.

Nearly two-thirds of the LWOP prisoners counted by the ACLU are in the federal system, almost all of them for drug offenses that are punished according to rigid formulas based on weight and criminal history. That's how Timothy Tyler ended up with a life sentence for selling LSD to fellow Deadheads after getting probation for two similar offenses. He was 24 when the government permanently stripped him of his freedom.

Even drug offenders without prior convictions can be sent to prison for the rest of their lives. When she was 26, Teresa Griffin was sentenced to life in federal prison for serving as a mule in her boyfriend's cocaine operation. Alice Marie Johnson got the same sentence when she was 42 for holding money and passing along messages as part of a cocaine distribution conspiracy. Both were first-time offenders.

The ACLU's report does not include people serving lengthy mandatory terms that amount to life sentences—such as Weldon Angelos, who is serving a 55-year sentence in federal prison for possessing a gun during three marijuana sales, or Morton Berger, who is serving a 200-year sentence in Arizona for possessing child pornography. Prisoners like Berger would not have been counted anyway, since the ACLU excluded sex offenders.

Furthermore, three states with nonviolent offenders serving LWOP sentences—Delaware, Nevada, and Virginia—did not provide data. Hence the ACLU's grim tally, appalling as it is, understates the number of people unjustly condemned to spend the rest of their lives in cages.

"Today," the ACLU notes, "the United States is virtually alone in its willingness to sentence nonviolent offenders to die behind bars." It urges state and federal legislators to abolish that practice and make the change retroactive so that current prisoners will be eligible for resentencing. In the meantime, it says, governors and the president should use their clemency powers, which they have exercised in recent years with scandalous infrequency, to free people who never should have received life sentences.

The ACLU also suggests that legislators "recalibrate drug policies." Since four-fifths of the people serving LWOP sentences for nonviolent crimes are drug offenders, more than a tweak may be needed. But we could start by recognizing that murdering someone is worse than selling him drugs.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    With the unholy convergence of a still very strong anti-drugs mentality (thanks to years of public education and pop culture brainwashing) and a very money-hungry prison industrial complex, I don't see the ACLU making much progress here. Broke lawmakers will stop paving roads before they start making any real effort at easing prison populations.

  • Dave Krueger||

    What's wrong with these people? For steeling basketball jerseys, I'd say 20 years is much more reasonable.

  • Snark Plissken||

    "What did they give you?"

    "Ten years."

    "What did you do?"

    "Nothing."

    "Can't be right. For nothing they give you twenty years."

    Old communist zero tolerance joke.

  • Rich||

    The difference between the discounted price and the list price was the difference between a misdemeanor punishable by no more than six months in jail and a felony that triggered a life sentence.

    Well, you've gotta draw the line *somewhere*.

  • Redmanfms||

    If we keep shit like this up we're going to end up with a vastly more dangerous class of criminal, much like the Soviet Union created and Russia has to deal with today.

    Most of the guys who come from the "underworld" know the law every bit as well as (or better than) the prosecutor. They know the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor. They also know if they get caught for a felony in three strikes states they are going away for life, no matter how trivial the actual offense. The really old larceny statutes (which place the felony line in the couple hundred dollar range) and, of course, our favorite drug laws making getting to three strikes really easy even if you are nothing more than a petty thief or casual drug user. I wonder how long this condition will exist before it starts creating the murderous sociopaths that the Russian criminal class represents. People who will murder you over an ATM robbery or car theft because, fuck it, I'm getting life anyway, might as well make it harder for the law by eliminating the witnesses.

    Shit, I know if I lived in a three strikes state and I was on my second strike I'd be killing people; what difference, at this point, does it make?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I, for one, support the harsher sentence leading to murderous sociopaths route, for it also eventually leads to costumed vigilantes patrolling our streets.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Shit, I know if I lived in a three strikes state and I was on my second strike I'd be killing people; what difference, at this point, does it make?

    Ya know, there's always the option of not committing more crimes.

  • Capt. Rimmer||

    Ya know, there's always the option of not committing more crimes.

    Have you read any American criminal codes lately? I'm not sure that's much of an option.

  • Redmanfms||

    Ya know, there's always the option of not committing more crimes.

    So you think people should go to prison for life for being drug users?

    Ok, Tulpa.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    No the drug laws are idiotic and immoral.

    But I don't have a problem with sending habitual thieves to prison.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    And your comment was: "Shit, I know if I lived in a three strikes state and I was on my second strike I'd be killing people; what difference, at this point, does it make?"

    Which means you're (in that hypothetical) a violent criminal that should be dispatched.

    So yeah, stop committing crimes - dumbshit.

  • Redmanfms||

    Which means you're (in that hypothetical) a violent criminal that should be dispatched.

    Or I'm a marijuana user who just got stopped with a bowl and an ounce of weed in my car...

    Even in the case of violent criminals who engage in robbery, they rarely kill their victims because it isn't worth it. Giving already violent people a strong incentive to be even more violent isn't going to result in less violence.

    So yeah, stop committing crimes - dumbshit.

    So, apparently you didn't read the post at all, or you are just too stupid to comprehend what I was saying.

    I wasn't making an argument in favor of the criminals; I was arguing that giving people already inclined to criminality nothing more to lose to be even more violent makes things worse for those of us who are not criminals.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Hmmm...if only there were some kind of golden mean between life sentences for nonviolent crimes, as in the us, and inadequately short sentences vor violent crimes, as in Europe!

    I recall reading a book by a european commenting on all the violent crime in europe and commenting offhand that the usa with their longer sentences doesnt have that problem.

    Our excessive sentences are a backlash from the 79s when violent criminals got derisorily short sentences. I hope the abuses re nonviolent offenders doesnt lead to excessive leniency for violent criminals again.

  • Rasilio||

    The problem is our violent crime sentences are not really all that long.

    Going off the top of my head you can commit rape or murder be eligible for parole in as little as 8 years in some states. Hell you violently rape a 12 year old film the whole event and you'd get more time for the pictures than the rape.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    What's the proper sentence for someone who repeatedly steals?

    Is it "non-violent" when someone burglarizes your home when you aren't there?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    What's the proper sentence for someone who repeatedly steals?

    To cut off the thief's hand, as demanded by Allah in Surah 5, verse 38 Holy Quran.

    [FUN FACT: In Christian scriptures (the "New" Testament) in Matthew 5:38 one can find the injunction against "eye for an eye" and the exhortation to "turn the other cheek". Which is the strongest evidence of Islam as Bizarro Christianity. which, of course, is why I am so infuriated that DC Comics continues to publish images of the Prophet, Lex Luthor (pbuh).]

  • Invisible Finger||

    To take "eye for an eye" at its actual meaning, the guy stealing 2 shirts has to give those shirts back and forfeit two shirts of his own.

  • Redmanfms||

    Is it "non-violent" when someone burglarizes your home when you aren't there?

    Uhh, yes?

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Great, where do you live and when are you there?

  • Redmanfms||

    Oh yea, logical fallacies for the win. You LOALs are always a bowl full of fucking retard.

    I'm not advocating for burglary you numbskull, I'm saying it is, in fact, a non-violent crime.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Stealing property is not non-violent.

  • Redmanfms||

    Stealing property is not non-violent.

    Selectively redefining words is the kind of idiotic shit progs do.

  • Adam||

    Would you like to explain why it should be classified as a violent crime? And not specific types of property theft, but apparently every kind.

    I'm interested in hearing the logic, and I doubt I'm alone. Well, on second thought, on here I might be.

  • JSebastian||

    Well, if you want to be fastidious with your definitions, then you have to consider the fact that "violent" has the meaning of using physical force intended to result in damage to a person or a thing. So a B&E is violent because it involves damage to property.

    At the same time it is not violence against a *person* which is in general, worse. Although one could argue a simple assault of a person resulting in a minor injury is less significant than a major incident of vandalism with costs running to millions of dollars.

    There has to be some relativism in order for the principle to reflect the interests of justice.

    In my opinion, thieves are undesirable in the ideal society as they undermine the basic things that allow a society to function, like trust (a measure of confidence in the likelihood that others will respect your rights), respect for property rights, and non-aggression.

    I don't have a problem with policies designed to eliminate thieves from society. Don't have to kill them, or lock them up forever, but maybe exile? It worked for Great Britain...and we eventually got Australia!

  • Adam||

    I'm not trying to split hairs, but the quote was that "stealing property is violent". What if someone leaves their car unlocked and I open the door and take something, is this "violent"? I didn't use force, I simply opened the door. Or to take a step further, they leave the window open and I take something. I have a hard time seeing how I'm using force in this example. I realize it's on the fringes, and not the most commone example. But a very common one would be shop-lifting. Sorry, but I don't think all theft should carry the adjective-noun "violent crime".

  • Adam||

    So, I guess I'm saying you could be right, B&E could be classified as violent, although, like in the unlocked door example, I don't think a theif is using force, in any sense of the word.

  • DenverJay||

    You've convinced me! Let's send all our criminals to Australia.

  • wareagle||

    people never elect DAs and judges who run on platforms of bringing common sense to the judiciary, or of sentencing being commensurate with the crime.

    Side note - fuck the ACLU. This the same group that things gay couples should be able to sue in order to have some right to middling wedding pictures. Stances like that weaken support it might have for things like this story.

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    people never elect DAs and judges who run on platforms of bringing common sense to the judiciary

    But they ARE running on common sense. It's just that a lot of people "sense" that criminals are subhuman infidels.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Well, I *wish* they'd lose support over the "public accomodations" thing, but based on public support for ENDA - even greater than SSM.

  • Capt. Rimmer||

    Considering that practically every motherfucker on this planet is a criminal in one way or the other I'd be careful about throwing heavy stones at thieves. Something wrong with people who demand disproportionate retribution. Someone's steals your bike they should buy you three bikes -- not a life sentence. Crazy motherfuckers.

  • JSebastian||

    Treble damages is still disproportionate retribution, but at least it provides deterrent value, while having actual value for the victim. So I can get behind it. The problem comes when you are there when the guy comes to steal your bike - are you supposed to let him take it? Or are you entitled (morally, not legally), to use any means necessary to prevent the theft of your property?

    As a believer in the NAP I personally believe that people forfeit their own rights when they attempt to use force to abrogate those of another, so from my perspective, that leads directly to the idea that vigilantism is justifiable (morally, not legally). If you have to plant a bike thief....so be it. Of course there are other personal moral elements that come into play - some people may prefer to just let the bike go rather than engage in a confrontation or kill a thief, and that's their prerogative too.

  • Capt. Rimmer||

    I agree with your thoughts.

    You can tell our criminal legal system was built by Kings and Tyrants. Every offense is an offense against the Tyrant (or in the modern democratic case "the elected Tyrants").

    These Kings had a maliciously control-freaked interest in shoving their greedy little noses in every god damn private dispute as a way of enriching themselves and demonstrating their power over their subjects/slaves.

    Over time this intervening in private affairs for the sake of enriching the King became so ingrained in the law that by the time Kings were overthrown by elected Tyrants everybody was so used to being controlled and controlling that nobody notices when society continued the practice of intervening in private affairs. The ghost of the Tyrant is alive and well in our legal system.

    The right approach to crime is to allow the parties to work out their disputes privately with minimal interference from the govt.

  • Capt. Rimmer||

    Even that old school eye for an eye would translate into two shirts for two shirts.

  • Sherwood 4ust||

    Is it the libertarian position that pedophiles be returned to society? A sexual predisposition for children can neither be cured nor reversed by treatment or imprisonment. Those involved in this type of despicable behavior should be removed from society PERMANENTLY.

  • Norma Jean Almodovar||

    Pedophiles are not only returned to society, but quite often not even sent to prison in the first place- particularly if they are a badge wearing predator. Consider that this past July, Clyde Franklin Sanders Jr. - Pike County Ohio Chief Deputy, plead guilty to raping a THREE YEAR OLD GIRL- TWICE- and was sentenced to probation. While some who download child porn are sentenced to 200 years, top ICE agent from Florida, Anthony Mangione, a relentless crusader against child porn, fanatically pursuing and apprehending those who possessed and distributed said child porn, was sentenced to 5 years, 10 months for possessing and DISTRIBUTING child porn- children between the ages of three and fifteen.

    More of these magnificent protectors of society for whom the laws do not apply can be found by searching this term: TRUE STORIES OF RAPIST/PEDOPHILE COPS OUT OF CONTROL AND THE JUSTICE SYSTEM THAT FAILS THE VICTIMS

    Why do we allow some predators to remain free while taking away the freedom of others for mere infractions of laws? Is someone who seeks to have sex with a minor (say aged 17) as serious a threat to society as someone who ACTUALLY has sex with a 5 year old, over a period of 10 years (throughout her childhood)? And who gets what amounts to a slap on the wrist because they wore a badge and 'other than this minor incident' they were quite a good officer?

  • KPres||

    These sentences are horrible, but they came about because serious criminals were getting away with a slap on the wrist, and this was seen as a way the legislatures could force the courts' hands. The average prison sentence for 1st degree murder is only, I think, 18 years. That's nothing for taking somebody's entire life, but people say you should have compassion for murderers so that's what you get. We're too hard on soft criminals and too soft on hard criminals. And victimless crimes are not crimes. Ultimately the problem is the justice system isn't firmly grounded on Lockean natural rights as it should be.

  • Adam||

    "We're too hard on soft criminals...."

    I'll say, since drug prohibition is bullshit to begin with, a written warning should be considered too hard.

  • KPres||

    Check out the sentence that follows the one you quoted.

  • Dread Pirate Roberts||

    Land of the free, home of the brave.

  • JSebastian||

    dont....

    a) expose government corruption or illegal surveillance?
    b) grow plants?
    c) resist?

  • MikePKY||

    If you can't do the time...

  • Redmanfms||

    ...murder all the witnesses...

  • JSebastian||

    dont....

    a) expose government corruption or illegal surveillance?
    b) grow plants?
    c) resist?

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