“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?”
So reads a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union on the status of people serving life-without-the-possibility-of-parole (or LWOP) sentences for nonviolent drug and property offenses.
Sometimes, as we endeavor to fight this thing we call crime, we engender the very evil we strive to reduce in the world.
As of 2012, we have condemned 3,278 people to live out their days and die in prison for nonviolent offenses, with 79 percent of those for nonviolent drug offenses. What’s worse, these numbers are conservative because they don’t account for those non-LWOP-but-effective-life sentences of, say, 350 years or for offenses that are legally classified as violent even though they did not involve actual violence. What’s also worse is the racial disparity that plagues other areas of our penal system. When it comes to LWOP sentences for nonviolent offenses, blacks constitute nearly two-thirds (65.4%) of all such prisoners, and in the federal system, blacks are sentenced to such sentences at 20 times the rate of whites.
The overwhelming majority of these LWOP sentences for nonviolent offenses are mandatory. That means the sentencing judges had no other choice. That means the law is the problem. And that means prosecutors are the problem who dictate results like these by exercising their discretion in ways that deprive judges of theirs.
We can do better. The report includes case studies of the lives and families affected as well as recommendations for reform. As things stand, we are in the minority (20%) of countries that impose LWOP sentences, and we are virtually alone among our peers in imposing such sentences for nonviolent offenses.