Report: Thousands of Nonviolent Americans Sentenced to Life in Prison Due to War on Drugs and Mandatory Minimums


The ACLU released a new report this week examining the growing trend of judges sentencing nonviolent offenders to life in prison without parole. The ACLU found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the War on Drugs, mandatory minimums, and "tough-on-crime" policies are to blame.

For instance, one inmate, Timothy Jackson, stole a $159 jacket, which, combined with three other minor shoplifting charges, met the threshold for Louisiana's Four-Strikes law. Jackson received a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Inmate Fate Vincent Winslow is serving his life sentence for selling $10 worth of marijuana to an undercover cop. Like Jackson, Winslow's crime was his fourth offense in Louisiana.The report, A Living Death: A Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenders, profiles 110 of the 3,278 inmates currently serving their life sentences for nonviolent crimes. Most of the offenders were charged with crimes like possession of small amounts of drugs or petty theft.

Another inmate's story, that of Dicky Joe Jackson, is reminiscent of the plight of Breaking Bad protagonist Walter White. To pay for his son's $250,000 life-saving bone marrow transplant, Jackson started transporting methamphetamine. Before long, however, he was caught selling to an undercover officer. SWAT teams raided his family's home, and Jackson was thrown in federal prison. He is nearly twenty years into his lifelong sentence.

In addition to the inmate profiles—which are a horribly depressing, but worthwhile read—the report discovered several interesting facts about life without parole (LWOP) in the US.

The Number of LWOP Sentences Has Been Growing For Decades

Offenders serving life without parole, whether violent or not, has been one of the most rapidly growing populations in the prison system. According to the report: "The number of people sentenced to LWOP quadrupled nationwide between 1992 and 2012, from 12,453 to 49,081."

LWOP Is Due to the War on Drugs, Mandatory Minimums, and Other "Tough on Crime" Policies

Nearly 80 percent of non-violent LWOP offenses are for drug crimes. Among the cases the ACLU surveyed, 83 percent of offenders were placed there because of mandatory minimums or three-strike laws—in other words, the judges had no choice. As the ACLU said:

The prevalence of LWOP sentences for nonviolent offenses is a symptom of the relentless onslaught of more than four decades of the War on Drugs and "tough-on crime" policies, which drove the passage of unnecessarily harsh sentencing laws, including three-strikes provisions…and mandatory minimum sentences.

There Are Racial Disparities

Like most aspects of the criminal justice system, there are stark racial disparities in life without parole sentences. Sixty-five percent of LWOP inmates are black, while in some states the disparity is even higher. In Louisiana, 91 percent are black. In the federal system, blacks are 20 times more likely to be sentenced to LWOP than whites.

This Is A Uniquely American Problem

The US is part of the mere 20 percent of countries that even offer LWOP sentences. And of those countries, the vast majority "place stringent restrictions on where they can be issued and limit their use to crimes of murder." As a result, the US's LWOP prison population dwarfs that of other countries'. According to the University of San Francisco's report on U.S. Sentencing Practices in a Global Context, the US's LWOP population is 51 times greater than Australia's and 173 times greater than England's.

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  1. …one inmate, Timothy Jackson, stole a $159 jacket, which, combined with three other minor shoplifting charges, met the threshold for Louisiana’s Four-Strikes law.

    FOUR STRIKES! He got FOUR strikes! That’s ONE MORE!

    Way to continue to be soft on crime, REASON.

    1. US’s LWOP population is 51 times greater than Australia’s and 173 times greater than England’s

      No duh! That’s because our population is, like, 51 times bigger than Australia Dnudee, and 173 times bigger than Rule Brittania!

      GOD Reason – try to keep up!


      1. From the article quoted: “The size of the U.S.’s LWOP population dwarfs other countries’ on a per capita basis as well; it is 51 times Australia’s, 173 times England’s, and 59 times the Netherlands’.”

    2. No kidding, a real tough on crime stance would be to cut off a body part for a first minor offense, stoning, hanging or beheading for a second minor offense.


  2. The good news is that all these people get free health care for life.

    1. And all the free homosexual rape they could ever wish for.


  3. God Reason, it’s supposed to be Hump Day! This is the third nutpunch in a row!

    1. I blame Balko

      1. Heh

  4. It’s maddening that Obama has the power to let these people out, yet doesn’t. Or sometimes governors do too, and don’t. How fucking egregious does the inflated sentence have to be to get their attention?

    1. It has to happen to someone sympathetic enough to get major media attention to shame the governor into a commutation or pardon (I say governor and not President because it’s clear the President has no shame).

      And given the state of major media falling all over each other to fellate cops and be “tough on crime” in their reporting, that’s not going to happen very often.

      1. Dude, go read about Weldon Angelos; it’s the article two down from this one. The guy is doing 55 years for selling some weed. It’s insane. That’s not sympathetic enough?

        Governors and Obama don’t do anything because they don’t give a shit. They’d actually have to read up on the case and that takes a few minutes. They have more important things to do, like attend fundraisers.

    2. It’s just a few more serfs in the dungeon to the king. All hail to the king!

    3. “How fucking egregious does the inflated sentence have to be to get their attention?”

      Why would you think that has anything to do with getting a pardon or reprieve?

      Those are granted only when it buys a pol some political capital or advantage. We are talking about sociopaths and narcissists here. They have no ability to empathize.

  5. Yeh, I don’t terribly care whether it’s 5 years or life. At what point does society benefit by removing these people from social networks, an occupation, and any future ability to return to society without recidivism?

    If you think they need hauled off the streets for a year? Kill ’em. If not, stocks, pillories, and sell rotten cabbage tosses to pedestrians passing by. Punishment, public humiliation, and revenue generation.

  6. What is a more barbaric sentence for a 4 time loser petty thief, life without parole or branding/amputation?

    I lean towards branding so non-criminal amputees aren’t stigmatized. You can probably steal pretty well with one of those $10 3-D printed prosthetic arms too.

  7. I was just at the grocery store and while waiting in line, I found myself adjacent to ye old grocery store line fixture of the magazine rack.

    Right top and center of the rack was a new issue of Time. On the cover was a spider web and the caption ‘The hidden web, drugs, porn, and murder’.

    If you been serfin da pr0n, or partaking of illicit drugs, then MURDER is the next obvious thing you’ll be up to!

    1. So my point is, if you been doin drugs that your betters have not approved of, better to lock yer ass up now, for a long, long time, before you start MURDERING PEOPLE!

    2. The utterly failing classic print mags have long been going to their most pathetically sensationalist old tricks like drugs, sex, and child panics. It’s all they have left.

        1. It’s pathetic because it’s desperate. They so want you to read their magazine, but you just don’t…

    3. No Betty and Veronica or Jughead’s Double Digest?

      Archie comics are taking over supermarket point-of-sale magazine racks where I live.

      1. So you are getting the more reality based magazines on your grocery store racks?

      2. If you have not checked out the Archie Zombie comic Afterlife with Archie you really should.

      3. In college I read a comic called Anarchie, in which the whole gang were anarchists (of the left-wing variety). It was funny as hell. Anarchie, Ludehead, and Moronica are the only names I can remember. The comic made fun of Marxists and Radical Femiinists as well as “the establishment.” Good times.

        1. Must be rare. Couldn’t find jack about the comic with a simple search. Too bad, sounds like one I’d enjoy reading.

  8. I don’t really have anything to say, other than for once I don’t have anything to say. Damn it, Remington, I was having a good Wednesday!

  9. Reading the ACLU thing….

    He said that excessive sentences like his “cause not only a distortion of one’s perception of the higher governmental powers that be, but also tear down completely one’s life aspirations
    of an onward successful life in all areas.”

    Distortion? He must mean correction.

  10. Sounds like one heck of a plan to me dude. Wow.

  11. Roll that beautiful bean footage.

  12. Reason please report on the Ryan Ferguson case, he just got released from prison and is a very interesting case in police and prosecutorial abuse and why immunity for these hacks is bs.

  13. “Mistrust those in whom the urge to punish is strong.” (Friedrich Nietzsche) That would be the U.S.

    Regarding consensual adult drug behavior: How can the government make a behavior that does not violate the rights of others a crime? Most drug behavior does not violate the rights of others. “Vices are not crimes.” (Lysander Spooner) The violence surrounding the presently illegal drugs is caused by the laws prohibiting them. What the so-called war on drugs really is, is the religious/personal moral beliefs of some put into secular law, a First Amendment “establishment” clause violation.

    The drug most likely to cause violent behavior is the true narcotic drug alcohol, which the police, prosecutors, politicians, and judges all consume.

    1. How can the government make a behavior that does not violate the rights of others a crime?

      Via the legislative process.

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