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December 5, 2018

Sentencing Project launches campaign to "End Life Imprisonment" with new book and other resources

Meaning_of_life_finalThe folks at The Sentencing Project this week officially kicked off what they are calling here a "Campaign to End Life Imprisonment." The website for the campaign has a facts, figures and stories about life imprisonment, and this four-page fact sheet has lots of data and graphs and includes these particulars:

While people of color are over-represented in prisons and jails; this disparity is even more evident among those sentenced to life imprisonment, where one of every five African American prisoners is serving a life sentence.

Over 6,000 women are serving life or virtual life sentences. The number of women serving life sentences has risen at a faster rate than for men in recent years. Between 2008 and 2016, women lifers increased by 20%, compared to a 15% increase for men.

Juveniles serve life sentences at alarming rates as well. In fact, the U.S. is unique in the world in its use of life imprisonment without parole for crimes committed by teenagers.

In addition to the more than 2,000 people serving life without the possibility of parole, there are more than 7,000 juveniles serving life with parole and another 2,000 serving “virtual life” prison terms of 50 years or more.

In conjunction with this launch, the New Press has published this new book authored by Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis, with contributions by Kerry Myers, titled "The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences." Here is how the publisher's website describes the book:

Most Western democracies have few or no people serving life sentences, yet here in the United States more than 200,000 people are sentenced to such prison terms.

Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis of The Sentencing Project argue that there is no practical or moral justification for a sentence longer than twenty years.  Harsher sentences have been shown to have little effect on crime rates, since people “age out” of crime — meaning that we’re spending a fortune on geriatric care for older prisoners who pose little threat to public safety.  Extreme punishment for serious crime also has an inflationary effect on sentences across the spectrum, helping to account for severe mandatory minimums and other harsh punishments.

A thoughtful and stirring call to action, The Meaning of Life also features moving profiles of a half dozen people affected by life sentences, written by former “lifer” and award-winning writer Kerry Myers.  The book will tie in to a campaign spearheaded by The Sentencing Project and offers a much-needed road map to a more humane criminal justice system.

December 5, 2018 at 12:45 AM | Permalink


During my time (8 years) in 10 different Federal prisons, I met many people who had life sentences and heard their stories. Some are dangerous sociopaths, who need life sentences to protect society. Most were not. I found particularly inappropriate the life sentences that had been ordered pursuant to 21 U.S.C. 851 (the Government files the enhancement papers and a U.S. District Judge has no discretion but to order a life sentence, for people having three or more prior felony drug offenses). One man I knew was given an 851 life sentence because he would not cooperate with law enforcement about where he got almost a kilo of methamphetamine, found in the trunk of his car during a traffic stop. If he had cooperated, his entire family would have been killed. His 5 children were dispersed to foster care when his wife also went to prison for a few years. One of his prior felony drug convictions was cocaine residue on scales found in his home. Another 851 life sentence I remember was a 21 year old black kid from Southeast D.C. The total amount of drugs involved in his 3 prior felony convictions was 8 ounces of marijuana and 3 grams of heroin. Again, he received the 851 enhancement because he wouldn't cooperate with law enforcement. That 21 year old could live for 50 or more years inside Federal penitentiaries, at a cost of $40,000 to $50,000 per year, depending on healthcare costs -- at a cost to taxpayers of more than $2 million over time. In many cases, the life sentences defy common sense.

Posted by: James Gormley | Dec 5, 2018 10:47:09 AM

Most all of the nonviolent marijuana offenders with life sentences received this sentence as a result of being charged with conspiracy and electing to exercise their sixth amendment right to trial. Some of them are first time offenders.

The conspiracy charge assures that the amount of marijuana will reach the kingpin status since they will be held responsible for all the weights of everyone in the conspiracy. Going to trial means they get enhancements for non-cooperation.

In the federal system, there is no parole and these nonviolent people. They are assigned to high security facilities. This designation is given to them based on their life sentence - not on their an evaluation of their behavior.

Posted by: beth | Dec 5, 2018 11:33:35 PM

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