A report issued yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union has found that there are currently 3,278 people residing in US prisons sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) for minor, non-violent crimes. The report, entitled “A Living Death – Life Without Parole for Non-Violent Offenses,” includes several case studies of actual American citizens who will die in prison for relatively minor offenses.
One of the most egregious examples cited in the report was that of 55-year-old Dicky Joe Jackson. Mr. Jackson has spent the last 17 years in prison with no possibility of parole for a non-violent drug crime. He was convicted of transporting and selling methamphetamine in order to fund a bone marrow transplant for his son. Without the transplant, his son would have died. Mr. Jackson will die in prison. Aljazeera America published an article this morning highlighting the horrific details of another incident:
[box type=”shadow”] The report features a few particularly shocking cases of disproportionate sentencing, including that of Stephanie Yvette George, who was convicted for unknowingly storing crack cocaine in her attic. The drugs belonged to the father of one of George’s children who was hiding them in a lockbox at George’s house. Because George had previously been convicted of minor drug offenses – never serving time in jail – Judge Roger Vinson had no choice but to sentence her to life without parole. “Your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder,” Judge Vinson said at the sentencing hearing. “So certainly, in my judgment, it doesn’t warrant a life sentence. If there was some way I could give you something less than life I sure would do it, but I can’t,” he added. [/box]
The vast majority of these 3,278 crimes were minor drug offenses and property crimes that fell under a spate of recently passed state laws that take sentencing decisions out of the hands of judges. These laws, often referred to as “three strikes” laws, began to proliferate in the mid-1970s under the guise of being tough on crime and the War on Drugs. According to the ACLU report, these mandatory sentencing laws:
[box type=”shadow”]…drove the passage of unnecessarily harsh sentencing laws, including three-strikes provisions (which mandate certain sentences for a third felony conviction) and mandatory minimum sentences (which require judges to punish people convicted of certain crimes by at least a mandatory minimum number of years in prison). The consequences of the United States’ late-twentieth-century obsession with mass incarceration and extreme, inhumane penalties are well-documented. From 1930 to 1975, the average incarceration rate was 106 people per 100,000 adults in the population. Between 1975 and 2011, the incarceration rate rose to 743 per 100,000 adults in the population—the highest incarceration rate in the world—with the total number of people incarcerated in jails and prisons across the country now surpassing 2.3 million. [/box]
America’s war on drugs began amid the 1960s, which saw recreational drug use skyrocket in teens and young adults as a part of the hippie counterculture and the anti-war movement. Still, in 1985 just 6% of Americans polled saw drugs as America’s most important issue, but just four years later, that figure had risen to an incredible 64%.
Non-violent property crimes also make up a significant number of LWOP cases. The actual ACLU report gives actual examples like a junk dealer in possession of stolen junk, a person who attempted to cash a stolen check, a man who stole tools from a toolshed, another arrested for siphoning gasoline from a truck, and yet another for taking a gun from an abusive step-father’s home. All of these petty criminals are currently serving a life sentence and will die in prison.
The ACLU report also pointed to an undeniable racial imbalance in the number of LWOP incarcerations. While blacks make up just 13% of the US population, they currently comprise 65.4% of the LWOP population. Whites account for 17%.
The report concludes: “Blacks are sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent offenses at rates that suggest unequal treatment and that cannot be explained by white and Black defendants’ differential involvement in crime alone.”
Finally, this report addresses the fiscal problems inherent in excessive incarcerations, saying, “…The total fiscal cost-savings to “taxpayers if state and federal sentencing statutes were revised to eliminate nonviolent offenses for eligibility for LWOP sentences would be at least $1.784 billion.” Attorney General Eric Holder addressed the issue in August of this year, saying his office was working to ease the overcrowding problem in federal prisons by reducing mandatory sentencing,
Conservative America is quick to call for severe punishment in drug offenses. Many on the other side of the political coin are seeking to decriminalize possession and use of marijuana and other recreational drugs. Hopefully these two sides can reach compromises based on common sense, fiscal concerns, and human compassion to reduce these unacceptable numbers of minor criminals sentenced to die in prison. Incarceration rates in the U.S. are dramatically higher than any other civilized nation on earth, and that’s not an American ideal.