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November 17, 2013

"Sentenced to a Slow Death"

The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times editorial discussing this week's noteworthy new ACLU report on the thousands of persons serving LWOP sentences for non-violent offenses in the United States (first discussed here).  Here are excerpts:

If this were happening in any other country, Americans would be aghast. A sentence of life in prison, without the possibility of parole, for trying to sell $10 of marijuana to an undercover officer?  For sharing LSD at a Grateful Dead concert?  For siphoning gas from a truck?  The punishment is so extreme, so irrational, so wildly disproportionate to the crime that it defies explanation.

And yet this is happening every day in federal and state courts across the United States. Judges, bound by mandatory sentencing laws that they openly denounce, are sending people away for the rest of their lives for committing nonviolent drug and property crimes. In nearly 20 percent of cases, it was the person’s first offense.

As of 2012, there were 3,278 prisoners serving sentences of life without parole for such crimes, according to an extensive and astonishing report issued Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union. And that number is conservative.  It doesn’t include inmates serving sentences of, say, 350 years for a series of nonviolent drug sales.  Nor does it include those in prison for crimes legally classified as “violent” even though they did not involve actual violence, like failing to report to a halfway house or trying to steal an unoccupied car....

As in the rest of the penal system, the racial disparity is vast: in the federal courts, blacks are 20 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent crimes.  The report estimates that the cost of imprisoning just these 3,278 people for life instead of a more proportionate length of time is $1.78 billion....

Several states are reforming sentencing laws to curb the mass incarceration binge.  And Congress is considering at least two bipartisan bills that would partly restore to judges the power to issue appropriate sentences, unbound by mandatory minimums.  These are positive steps, but they do not go far enough.  As the report recommends, federal and state legislators should ban sentences of life without parole for nonviolent crimes, both for those already serving these sentences and in future cases.  President Obama and state governors should also use executive clemency to commute existing sentences.  Just one-fifth of all countries allow a sentence of life without parole, and most of those reserve it for murder or repeated violent crimes.  If the United States is to call itself a civilized nation, it must end this cruel and ineffective practice.

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Comments

Newborn infants are also generally sentenced to a slow death.

As for trying to reclassify burglary of an unoccupied dwelling as a non-violent offense these folks must be high on the good stuff.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Nov 17, 2013 7:01:19 PM

The opening two paragraphs are dishonest. No, it is not happening everyday, no one is getting life for siphoning gas, selling weed $10 of weed or a single dose of LSD as a first offense. Please name a single jurisdiction that would give LWOP or de facto LWOP for these crimes with no other facts as a first offense.

If someone is getting LWOP for these crimes, they most assuredly have a criminal history. Knowing that criminal history may substantially lower the percentage of Americans who would be aghast at the sentence.

PLEASE, just stop lying.

Posted by: David | Nov 18, 2013 9:37:32 PM

David --

Correct. The editorial is thoroughly dishonest. But asking the NYT to stop lying is like asking a 16 year-old boy to stop looking at girls. Some things just aren't going to happen.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 19, 2013 10:03:58 AM

The only instances where people have been given life for non violent crimes are with the much flawed "3 strikes Law" and habitual criminal act. Which is still used in certain cases in California. No one has ever received LWOP for a non Capital Punishment Crime! In California a person would get LWOP if it were a Capital Punishment case only..

Posted by: Stan Jax | Feb 3, 2014 7:08:51 PM

No one has ever received a LWOP sentence for a non violent offense. The only instances where someone has received life for a non violent act in under our failed and flawed 3 strikes Law. The other is under the habitual criminal act, which is determined by a persons past history of related crimes or a pattern of being a criminal. LWOP is only given to people convicted of Capital Punishment offenses. I am a ex felon that has served the past 13 years incarcerated. 4yrs in Pelican Bay SHU and all of my time on Level 4 180 prisons. I speak from experience!

Posted by: Stan Jax | Feb 3, 2014 7:16:52 PM

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