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July 5, 2016

Examining with decades of hindsight a (not-so-violent) violent crime spree resulting in LWOP sentences

The front-page of today's New York Times has this interesting piece examining one notable defendant serving multiple LWOP sentences for violent crimes that do not quite seem to justify the extreme sentence decades later.  The piece is headlined "One Robber’s 3 Life Sentences: ’90s Legacy Fills Prisons Today," and it gets started this way:

Lenny Singleton is the first to admit that he deserved an extended stay behind bars.  To fuel his crack habit back in 1995, he walked into 13 stores over eight days and either distracted a clerk or pretended to have a concealed gun before stealing from the cash register.  One time, he was armed with a knife with a six-inch blade that he had brought from his kitchen.

Mr. Singleton, 28 at the time, was charged with robbery and accepted a plea deal, fully expecting to receive a long jail sentence.  But a confluence of factors worked against him, including the particularly hard-nosed judge who sentenced him and the zero-tolerance ethos of the time against users of crack cocaine.  His sentence was very long: two life sentences. And another 100 years. And no possibility for parole.

There is a growing consensus that the criminal justice system has incarcerated too many Americans for too many years, with liberals and conservatives alike denouncing the economic and social costs of holding 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails.  And Congress is currently debating a criminal justice bill that, among other provisions, would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders.

But a divide has opened within the reform movement over how to address prisoners who have been convicted of violent crimes, including people like Mr. Singleton, who threatened shop owners but did not harm anyone.  Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union favor a swift 50 percent reduction in prison populations, while conservative prison reform organizations like Right on Crime prioritize the release of nonviolent offenders and worry that releasing others could backfire and reduce public support.

Nonviolent drug offenders make up only about 17 percent of all state prison inmates around the nation, while violent offenders make up more than 50 percent, according to federal data.

As the prison population has increased sharply over the past 30 years, so too has the number of those sentenced to life.  Mr. Singleton is among nearly 160,000 prisoners serving life sentences — roughly the population of Eugene, Ore. The number of such inmates has more than quadrupled since 1984, and now about one in nine prison inmates is serving a life term, federal data shows.

“People are celebrating the stabilization of the prison population in recent years, but the scale of mass incarceration is so substantial that meaningful reduction is not going to happen by tinkering around the edges,” said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates changes in sentencing policy.

July 5, 2016 at 10:51 AM | Permalink

Comments

How many criminals with records like Singleton's got a lenient sentence and then went on to hurt someone?

When I was a kid, I was a paperboy. I was beaten and robbed by four thugs. Robbery is an awful thing. People who do it need to pay.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 5, 2016 11:28:11 AM

Federalist,

With all due respect, your comments are just tautological. Sure some people are going to be given a lenient sentence and go on to hurt someone. (So do some people given harsher sentences.) Sure robbery is an "awful thing," and people who commit robbery "need to pay." But what do those truisms tell us about justice in this case. Would, say 10 years, simply not be enough? Do you really think this guy needs to be put away for life? You and others like Bill Otis, just elide the more difficult questions. It is sentences like this that are the reason we have 5-8X the prison population of peer nations. Do you just like avoiding real policy discussions in favor of "you do the crime, you do the time" evasion?

We have finite resources for imprisonment. And, just as important, we should not needlessly -- or excessively -- impose on the liberty of those who committed wrongdoing. To do so is simply un-American. It is ironic, indeed, that the Land of the Free is so in love with draconian penalties.

Posted by: Mark | Jul 5, 2016 5:57:07 PM

Vandy Singleton here -- Lenny Singleton's wife -- Lenny Singleton (shown in the profile pic) is the example given in this article. Many people have asked me why did I marry Lenny while he is incarcerated with 2 Life Sentences plus 100 years? But before I answer that, I just want to say the following. Our world, everyday on the news, we get story after story of hate, of racism, of another person of color being unjustly shot or killed. We do not have enough stories of Love and today I am going to give you that. I truly believe that our story is the Love Story of the century.

You see I knew Lenny back in high school. We attended a magnet school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Magnet schools were funded by the government to help in the desegregation of America. And Tulsa was in desperate need of desegregation. Tulsa is site of one of the worst race riots in the country -- The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921. Because of that event, Lenny and I sat right next to each other in math class, and we became fast friends. One day Lenny stood up and announced to the entire class, "Vandy Hill, I just love you." Lenny graduated a year ahead of me with a full ride athletic scholarship and we lost contact with one another, but that has always stayed with me.

For over 28 years I searched for Lenny, finally finding him on Facebook in September 2012. His brother Lionel had retired from the military and had, upon visiting Lenny in 2012, decided to put a FB page up for him and do whatever he could to help his brother. I was horrified when I discovered what had happened to my friend. I began writing everyone I could think of to bring attention to his situation. I have written well over a thousand letters and emails to everyone from the President of the US, the Governor of Virginia (previous and current), every person in the House and Senate, lawyers, educators, talks show hosts, tv stations, newspapers, actors and actresses, musicians, advocacy organizations -- I still write everyone I can think of. I also began writing Lenny.

Lenny shared all that he has been doing while incarcerated these past 21 years. He works every business day in a position of authority, he lives in the Honor's Dorm, and he takes every available class for self-improvement offered. During the entire 21 years he has been in prison, he has not received a single infraction for anything - very rare for lifers who have no motivation to be the best they can be. For over 10 years he was a leader in his church finally stepping down to focus on his situation and that is when his brother popped up and when I finally found him.

For me, as we began to catch either up over 28 years I realized what bad shape I was in -- in every way. I was at least 60 lbs. overweight and terribly unhappy. With Lenny's constant encouragement and suggestions, I lost 50 lbs. in 4 months, so much weight that I was finally able to feel the lump in my left armpit. With the discovery of a tumor in my left breast over my heart and a tumor at the base of my skull threatening to paralyze me from the neck down, my Triple Negative Breast Cancer diagnosis turned from Stage II to Stage IV overnight. If I had not reunited with Lenny when I did, right now I would either be paralyzed from the neck down or dead -- that was the path I was headed down. My reunion with Lenny created a miracle for me and now I am trying to do whatever I can to bring him the miracle he needs.

To that end, I married Lenny in 2015 in Nottoway Correctional Center -- I married Lenny because he saved my life, because I believe in his reformed nature 110% but mainly because I love him so very dearly. Together we have written and published a book together called "Love Conquers All: How Love Delivered Her from Cancer and Him from Prison," now available on Amazon. We are hoping to change how people view addiction, cancer and healthcare system, the family unit, and the judicial system. This book not only shares Lenny's journey to incarceration but also chronicles the miracle that took place in my life. It stands as a testament to the power of our thoughts to create our reality, that miracles do and can happen, and that Love does indeed conquer all. It is raw, honest, and powerfully inspirational. There is literally something for everyone. This is a look inside of the mind of a man that is considered to be "violent" even though no one filed as a "victim" and no one was physically injured. There is no one who would read this that would think that Lenny deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. If you need more love in your life, if you need inspiration, if you need more hope, then I encourage you to get a copy. It is as real as it gets and won't be like any book you have ever read. Lenny spent over a year hand writing his letters to me -- because he wants to help those that might be headed down the same path he was. That is how this "violent" criminal spent his weekends for over a year -- doing something in the hopes of helping others. I know the haters will think this is about the money, so to set you straight, we have made a total of $27 to date on our book. It is absolutely not about the money. It is about helping people have a better life.

Taxpayers will pay well over a million dollars to keep Lenny for the rest of his life. In Virginia, it costs over $25,000 per inmate per year. Lenny has already costs taxpayers over $500,000 and if he remains in prison for the rest of his life that total will surpass a million dollars -- for robbing less than $550 in crimes where no one was physically injured. This makes no sense on any level. That money would be better spent on preventative education, rehabilitation services, or rebuilding infrastructures -- on anything other than keeping one man who is deserving of a second chance, who was a first time felon with a college degree and who served in our Navy, who has already been in prison for 21 years, who didn't physically injured anyone in prison for the rest of his life.

Although Lenny's case is possibly one of the worst illustrating sentencing disparity and excessive sentencing, it is not, by far, the only one. It is time that we care for our own -- these people are our people. I realize that their are many who belong behind bars but there are so many, like Lenny, that deserve a second chance. Once Lenny is released we plan to tour the country fighting for criminal justice reform. We are currently working on a program to help inmates and those headed down that path. Right now there is nothing in place to help inmates successfully reenter society, developing self-mastery skills and other social skills. We spend our tax dollars just locking them up and in Lenny's case, throwing away the key. It is time for this to change.

I want to believe in humanity's love and we need the help of the American people. Please visit our website at www.justice4lenny.org and sign Lenny Singleton's petition. We need as many signatures as we can get. I don't know how much time I have left on this Earth. To the amazement of my oncologist, I currently have "no active disease" in my body. I can tell you this -- I will continue to fight for Lenny's release until he is released or I am dead.

Posted by: Vandy Singleton | Jul 19, 2016 11:03:26 AM

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