Prisons

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

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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.

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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.

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.

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.