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September 18, 2013

The Sentencing Project releases "Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America"

I received an email alerting me to an important new publication about life and LWOP sentence just released by The Sentencing Project.   Here is the text of the email, which includes links to the publication as well as a summry of its key findings: 

While serious crime rates in the U.S. have been declining for the last 20 years, the number of prisoners serving life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984.  As documented in our new report, Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America, by senior research analyst Ashley Nellis, over 159,000 people were serving life sentences in 2012, with nearly 50,000 serving life without parole.

Key findings from the report include:

  • One of every nine individuals in prison is serving a life sentence.
  • The population of prisoners serving life without parole (LWOP) has risen more sharply than those with the possibility of parole: there has been a 22.2% increase in LWOP since just 2008.
  • Approximately 10,000 lifers have been convicted of nonviolent offenses.
  • Nearly half of lifers are African American and 1 in 6 are Latino. 
  • More than 10,000 life-sentenced inmates have been convicted of crimes that occurred before they turned 18 and nearly 1 in 4 of them were sentenced to LWOP.
  • More than 5,300 (3.4%) of the life-sentenced inmates are female.
In order to reshape our crime policies to facilitaterehabilation, promote public safety, and reduce the high cost of massincarceration, the report recommends eliminating life without parole,increasing the use of executive clemency, preparing persons sentenced to lifefor release from prison, and restoring the role of parole in prisoner release.

September 18, 2013 at 04:35 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Of course, proponents for more life sentences or longer sentences in general would say, "See? Locking up criminals for longer times reduces crime! DUH!!" So what is the middle ground, if indeed there is a middle ground?

Posted by: Eric Knight | Sep 18, 2013 5:26:14 PM

The middle ground begins by putting aside the theory that life or life without parole is automatically bad and looking at who is getting those sentences and for what conduct. In other words, are we properly focusing our prison resources on the offenders whom we most want off the street and using other programs and shorter sentences for those who pose a lesser risk.

Looking at the report, most of the life sentences are for homicide with a significant chunk of the remainder being for offenses like rape and armed robbery. Given that a major argument against the death penalyt is that life and lwop are viable alternatives, it seems incongruous to at the same time argue that life and lwop are bad ideas.

Other than picking out some outlying states, the report does not indicate the national numbers for how many lwops are for non-homicides (and how many of the non-homicide lwops are for repeat offenders). A life sentence with eligibility for parole does not strike me as unreasonable for a particularly violent non-homicide and lwop for repeat rapists does not strike me as unreasonable.

I think most people would hesitate on giving lwop to a drug dealer (particular for a first offense), but might see life as appropriate for a career drug dealer.

Posted by: tmm | Sep 18, 2013 6:57:03 PM

Uncomfortable findings of the report include:

* 1 of every 9 individuals in prison has committed repeated or especially despicable crimes resulting
in life in prison. In former years -- or in other states -- some of these 'bottom feeders' would have
been executed speedily after conviction.

* Irrelevant appeals and liberal costs have so festered that there has been a 22.2% increase in LWOP
since just 2008, instead of executions.

* Approximately 10,000 lifers (of 159,520 total) have been convicted of nonviolent offenses (2,500 or
2% drug offenses), contrasted with the 92.7% convicted of either homicide (87,933), sexual assault/
rape, kidnapping/agg. assault/robbery.
-- -- --

* Nearly 50% of lifers are African American and 1 in 6 are Latino, meaning these communities are so
lawless, and so violent compared to others, that Jesse Jackson stated in 1993: "There is nothing
more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and
start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved ... how humiliating
."

* Over 10,000 lifers (6.5% of total) were convicted of crimes achieved before the age of 18 and
nearly 1 in 4 [2,435] of them were sentenced to LWOP.

* More than 5,300 (3.4%) of the life-sentenced inmates are female and growing, as historic gender
roles erode, and transgenderism flourishes with federal supports.

Posted by: Adamakis | Sep 20, 2013 10:52:22 AM

tmm, you write " think most people would hesitate on giving lwop to a drug dealer (particular for a first offense), but might see life as appropriate for a career drug dealer."

The state had no problem in seeking, and the court in imposing, a sentence of life without parole on Mr. Harmelin for possessing 1.5 kilos of cocaine--even though he was 45 years old with no prior criminal record. Is this an example of American justice or of American injustice?

Posted by: Amy from Iowa | Sep 20, 2013 2:20:05 PM

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