Hit & Run

Jacob Sullum on Life Sentences for Nonviolent Offenders


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. There were at least 3,278 such prisoners in the U.S. at the end of 2012. Senior Editor Jacob Sullum says that astonishing number reflects decades of tough-on-crime policies unconstrained by justice, wisdom, or compassion.