One man stole a jacket. Another siphoned gas from a truck. A third let a friend store some drugs at her home. They are among 3,278 criminals now serving life sentences without a chance for parole (LWOP) that “are grotesquely out of proportion to the conduct they seek to punish,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
And the overwhelming majority of the defendants were sentenced under mandatory guidelines, which meant judges lacked the authority to tailor the punishments to the crimes, at a significant cost to taxpayers and effectively ending any chance of a productive life for the people sentenced. Attorney General Eric Holder has announced plans to review some federal guidelines, but for thousands of people, any such revisions will be meaningless. From the ACLU report:
Prosecutors, on the other hand, have immense power over defendants’ fates: whether or not to charge a defendant with a sentencing enhancement triggering an LWOP sentence is within their discretion. In case after case reviewed by the ACLU, the sentencing judge said on the record that he or she opposed the mandatory LWOP sentence as too severe but had no discretion to take individual circumstances into account or override the prosecutor’s charging decision.
As striking as they are, the numbers documented in this report underrepresent the true number of people who will die in prison after being convicted of a nonviolent crime in this country. The thousands of people noted above do not include the substantial number of prisoners who will die behind bars after being convicted of a crime classified as “violent” (such as a conviction for assault after a bar fight), nor do the numbers include “de facto” LWOP sentences that exceed the convicted person’s natural lifespan, such as a sentence of 350 years for a series of nonviolent drug sales. Although less-violent and de facto LWOP cases fall outside of the scope of this report, they remain a troubling manifestation of extreme sentencing policies in this country.”
The staggering weight of these sentences shouldn’t surprise us, given that the United States leads the world in number of incarcerated people, and in prisoners per capita. The total: 1.57 million people under federal and state prison control, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, a number that doesn’t include those being held for misdemeanor sentences in local jails. Counting those would bring the total up to about 2 million, according to The Huffington Post—nearly the population of Houston.
That means the U.S., with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, has 25 percent of the world’s inmates. Including Dicky Joe Jackson, 55, a truck driver with a drug record “who has served 17 years of a life-without-parole sentence because he transported and sold methamphetamine to pay for a life-saving bone marrow transplant and other medical treatments for his son,” according to the ACLU. The group has issued something akin to a national call to action:
Those who seek a fairer and less wasteful criminal justice system must at a minimum demand that all states and the federal government abolish the sentence of LWOP for nonviolent offenses; eliminate mandatory LWOP sentences, which tie judges’ hands; rescind three-strikes laws, which often make no distinction between, for example, armed assault and drug possession; and recalibrate drug policies. The Bureau of Prisons and state Departments of Corrections should conduct case-by-case reviews of federal and state prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses to determine if their continued incarcerations are in the public interest. And finally, federal and state governments should invest in prevention of imprisonment by providing drug and mental health treatment, education, employment, and job training to prevent criminality and recidivism.