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November 14, 2013

New York Times op-ed asks "Serving Life for This?"

I am pleased to see that columnist Nicholas Kristoff used his op-ed space today in the New York Times to promote the ACLU's new report on the thousands of persons serving LWOP sentences for non-violent offenses in the United States (discussed here).  This piece is headlined "Serving Life For This?," and here are excerpts:

At a time when America has been slashing preschool programs, we have also been spending vast sums to incarcerate thousands of nonviolent offenders in life sentences without any possibility of parole. These cases underscore that our mass incarceration experiment has resulted in monstrous injustice and waste — a waste of tax dollars and of human lives.

Judges and prison officials are rebelling at the injustice of our justice system. Here’s what Judge James R. Spencer, a federal district judge, said when sentencing a former F.B.I. informant to life without parole for selling crack cocaine to support his own addiction: “A life sentence for what you have done in this case is ridiculous; it is a travesty.” But federal law on mandatory minimums left Judge Spencer no leeway. He added: “I don’t agree with it, either. And I want the world and the record to be clear on that. This is just silly.”

Here are some other nonviolent offenders serving life sentences without the possibility of parole:

• Ricky Minor, a meth addict and father of three, was found with 1.2 grams of meth in his home, along with over-the-counter decongestants that can be used to manufacture meth. He was initially charged under Florida law and says he faced a two-and-a-half-year sentence. Later indicted under federal law, he pleaded guilty because his public defender said that otherwise the prosecutors would also pursue his wife, leaving no one to raise their children. Minor had several prior nonviolent offenses, for which he had never served time, and these required Judge Clyde Roger Vinson to sentence him to life without parole. Judge Vinson said that the sentence “far exceeds whatever punishment would be appropriate.”

• Dicky Joe Jackson was a trucker whose 2-year-old son, Cole, needed a bone-marrow transplant to save his life. The family raised $50,000 through community fund-raisers, not nearly enough for the transplant, and Jackson tried to earn the difference by carrying meth in his truck. He has now been in prison for the last 17 years; when he lost his last appeal, he divorced his wife of 19 years so that she could start over in her life. The federal prosecutor in the case acknowledged: “I saw no indication that Mr. Jackson was violent, that he was any sort of large-scale narcotics trafficker, or that he committed his crimes for any reason other than to get money to care for his gravely ill child.”

• Danielle Metz became pregnant at 17 and later married an abusive man who was also a drug dealer. To placate him, she says, she sometimes helped him by fetching cocaine or collecting money from Western Union. After one clash in which he punched her in the face, she took the kids and left him. Two months later, she was indicted. She says that she was prosecuted primarily to induce her to testify against her husband, but that she wasn’t knowledgeable enough to have useful information to trade for a reduced sentence. She has now spent more than 20 years in prison.

Those examples come from a devastating new report, “A Living Death,” by the American Civil Liberties Union. It identified more than 3,200 such nonviolent offenders sentenced to die behind bars. Four out of five are black or Hispanic. Virtually all are poor. Many had dismal legal counsel. Some were convicted of crimes committed when they were juveniles or very young adults....

I write often about human rights abuses abroad. But when we take young, nonviolent offenders — some of them never arrested before — and sentence them to die in prison, it’s time for Americans who care about injustice to gaze in the mirror.

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November 14, 2013 at 02:55 PM | Permalink


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We are our enemy. :(

Posted by: Just Plain Jim (Just Another Guy) | Nov 14, 2013 3:39:07 PM

Bill Otis and I believe that each of these sentences is fully justified. Don't cry about the time you get for committing crime. Keep our streets safe!

Posted by: anon | Nov 14, 2013 6:38:10 PM

Guys, it's all about risk allocation. If we designed systems so that none of these sentences ever came down the pike, we'd have a lot of sentences handed down that are too lenient.

But you know what--we have the hope and change president. His own AG has whined about how many people are doing too long a sentence. So why isn't Obama working to right some injustices?

I think that a strong clemency process is a necessary adjunct to harsh sentencing regimes, which I fully support. Why clemency is not granted more often is beyond me.

Posted by: federalist | Nov 14, 2013 10:22:53 PM

Federalist makes a point regarding clemency on which just about everyone can agree! I do wish that some of the "tough on crime" folks could acknowledge more readily that there are big problems in the sentencing structure that allow for the sort of injustices described in this piece and join the chorus for reform. Put otherwise, it shouldn't be that just because one leans towards tougher sentencing policy, one should be any less shocked by some of these cases. That we have 5% of the world's population and 25% of its prisoners seems just about indisputably a cause for some re-evaluation.

Also, what about simply getting rid of LWOP sentences, except in truly extreme cases, and simply making it more certain that actors like these will get say 5-15 years. Are the LWOP sentences really necessary to avoid the "bad old days" of overly-lenient sentencing and take account for risk assessmetn, or would be accomplish that by just making sure that people convicted of dealing in large quantities of drugs get significant sentences? Alternatively, what about re-instituting parole eligibility to allow second looks in cases like this? Although I agree entirely on Federalist's clemency point, does it really suffice to leave case-by-case determinations by the President as the only relief for cases like the ones discussed in the piece?

In optimistic moments, I wonder if there is more room for consensus than it sometimes appears in these fora.

Posted by: Mike | Nov 15, 2013 10:35:38 AM

Federalist -

I agree that clemency could be a good counterbalance to harsh sentencing.

The problem is that the people who can grant clemency (mostly state governors) want to stay in positions of political power, or at least of political influence. Every time they grant clemency to someone who was harshly sentenced, they risk releasing a Willie Horton and blowing their political future -- not because they weren't diligent in processing the clemency application but because they're human. They know that if they grant any substantial number of clemencies, they inevitably will make some mistakes.

Do you think that situation is going to change? I don't.

Posted by: arfarf | Nov 15, 2013 2:24:17 PM

I favor clemency for outlier cases (which is what it was designed for); I also favor accountability for those who grant clemency, as for other government officials (think Mike Nifong) who knowingly prosecute innocent people out of racial animosity or for any other immoral reason.

While we're at it, I favor accountability for defense counsel as well. Oh......wait.........I forgot for a moment that defense lawyers have the Great Exemption from Accountability. Sorry!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 15, 2013 5:46:48 PM

maybe so bill. but I notice the DA's and Judges get better execemptions from the USSC. I don't see them going to jail!

Posted by: rodsmith | Nov 16, 2013 6:46:18 PM

rodsmith --

Actually, any number of judges, even federal judges, have gone to jail. Then there were the local Operation Greylord judges in Chicago, who also went to jail. The Greylord judges granted acquittals the old fashioned way -- they sold them.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 17, 2013 9:05:32 AM

horse pucky! compared to the percentage of normal americans going to jail. then number of cops and da's and judges it's nothing!

Posted by: rodsmith | Nov 19, 2013 10:22:57 AM

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