A Living Death

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The report from the ACLU about the percentage of offenders of life without parole for nonviolent offenses.
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  November 2013 A LIVING DEATH Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses  Cover images: A life sentence in Louisiana means life without the possibility of parole. Because of harsh sentencing laws, about 95 percent of the 5,225 people imprisoned at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola will die there. Louisiana is the state with the highest number of prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses in the United States, with 429 such prisoners, 91 percent of whom are Black according to the ACLU’s estimates.(Top) Mary Bloomer, a prison security guard, watches as prisoners form a line to travel to their prison jobs, which include farm labor. Angola is a massive maximum security plantation prison, occupying flat delta land equal to the size of Manhattan. (Middle) George Alexander’s socks are marked with his nickname “Ghost.” Alexander was a patient in the Angola hospice program who later succumbed to brain and lung cancers. His nickname is short for “Casper, the Friendly Ghost.” (Bottom) Hospice volunteers roll George Alexander’s coffin from the prison hospital before burial in the prison’s cemetery.Photo credit: Lori Waselchuk, “Grace Before Dying” Back cover image: The cemetery at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.   American Civil Liberties Union125 Broad StreetNew York, NY 10004www.aclu.org  © 2013 ACLU Foundation A Living Death Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses  A Living Death: Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses TABLE OF CONTENTS I. Executive Summary .................................................................................................................................................................... 4 II. Recommendations  .................................................................................................................................................................... 14 III. Methodology  ................................................................................................................................................................................ 16 A. DEFINING “LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE”  ............................................................................................................................. 17 B. DEFINING “NONVIOLENT”  ............................................................................................................................................... 18 IV. Findings: The Use of Life without Parole for Nonviolent Crimes  ......................................................................... 20 A. RISE IN LIFE-WITHOUT-PAROLE SENTENCES  ............................................................................................................ 20 B. NONVIOLENT CRIMES THAT RESULT IN LIFE-WITHOUT-PAROLE SENTENCES  .................................................... 21 C. WHO IS SERVING LWOP FOR NONVIOLENT CRIMES: THE NUMBERS  .................................................................... 22 D. RACIAL DISPARITY IN LIFE-WITHOUT-PAROLE SENTENCING  .................................................................................. 29 V. How We Got Here: Skyrocketing Extreme Sentences and Mass Incarceration  .............................................. 32 A. THE “WAR ON DRUGS” AND MANDATORY MINIMUM SENTENCING LAWS  ............................................................ 33 B. THREE-STRIKES AND OTHER HABITUAL OFFENDER LAWS  ..................................................................................... 35 C. CHANGES TO PAROLE LAWS AND OTHER LIMITATIONS ON RELEASE  .................................................................... 36 VI. Case Studies: 110 Offenders Sentenced to Die in Prison for Nonviolent Crimes  .......................................... 38 A. FIRST-TIME NONVIOLENT OFFENDERS  ........................................................................................................................ 39 B. NONVIOLENT TEENAGE OFFENDERS  ............................................................................................................................ 67 C. TYING JUDGES’ HANDS: MANDATORY LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE  ................................................................................ 74 D. LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE FOR NONVIOLENT OFFENSES UNDER HABITUAL OFFENDER LAWS  ........................... 98 i. State Habitual Offenders  ....................................................................................................................................... 101 ii. Federal Habitual Offenders  .................................................................................................................................. 150 E. LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE FOR MARIJUANA  .................................................................................................................. 156 F. LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE DUE TO CRACK/POWDER COCAINE SENTENCING DISPARITY  ..................................... 168 G. AGING AND ELDERLY NONVIOLENT PRISONERS  ...................................................................................................... 174 H. TERMINALLY ILL NONVIOLENT PRISONERS  .............................................................................................................. 178 VII. The Reality of Serving Life without Parole  ................................................................................................................... 182 A. WHAT IT MEANS TO BE SENTENCED TO LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE  .......................................................................... 183 i. Hopelessness, Depression, and Suicidal Thoughts and Attempts  .................................................................. 184 ii. Isolation from Family  ............................................................................................................................................. 186 B. PRISON CONDITIONS  ..................................................................................................................................................... 187 i. Violence  ................................................................................................................................................................... 187 ii. Solitary Confinement  ............................................................................................................................................. 188 iii. Restricted Access to Drug Treatment, Vocational, and Educational Programs  ............................................ 189 C. LIMITED JUDICIAL REVIEW OF DEATH-IN-PRISON SENTENCES  ........................................................................... 190 D. VIRTUALLY NO CHANCE OF CLEMENCY OR COMPASSIONATE RELEASE  ............................................................. 192 VIII. The Financial Cost of Sentencing Nonviolent Offenders to Life without Parole  ........................................ 194 A. METHODOLOGY  ................................................................................................................................................................ 195 B. FISCAL COST-SAVINGS ESTIMATES  ............................................................................................................................. 198 IX. Comparative International Practice and Fundamental Rights to Humane Treatment, Proportionate Sentence, and Rehabilitation  ............................................................................................................... 200 A. OUT OF STEP WITH THE WORLD  .................................................................................................................................. 200 B. DISPROPORTIONATE SENTENCES VIOLATE INTERNATIONAL LAW  ....................................................................... 203 C. RIGHT TO REHABILITATION UNDER INTERNATIONAL LAW  ..................................................................................... 205 D. U.S. CONSTITUTIONAL LAW  .......................................................................................................................................... 206 X. Acknowledgments  .................................................................................................................................................................. 209  2 American Civil Liberties Union Bureau of Prisons, and state Departments of Corrections, obtained pursuant to Freedom of Information Act and open records requests filed by the ACLU. Our research is also based on telephone interviews conducted by the ACLU with prisoners, their lawyers, and family members; correspondence with prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses; a survey of 355 prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses; and media and court records searches. Sentenced to Die Behind Bars for Nonviolent Crimes Using data obtained from the Bureau of Prisons and state Departments of Corrections, the ACLU calculates that as of 2012, there were 3,278 prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent drug and property crimes in the federal system and in nine states that provided such statistics (there may well be more such prisoners in other states). About 79 percent of these 3,278 prisoners are serving LWOP for nonviolent drug crimes. Nearly two-thirds of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses nationwide are in the federal system; of these, 96 percent are serving LWOP for drug crimes. More than 18 percent of federal prisoners surveyed by the ACLU are serving LWOP for their first offenses. Of the states that sentence nonviolent offenders to LWOP, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Oklahoma have the highest numbers of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent crimes, largely due to three-strikes and other kinds of habitual offender laws that mandate an LWOP sentence for the commission of a nonviolent crime. The overwhelming majority (83.4 percent) of the LWOP sentences for nonviolent crimes surveyed by the ACLU were mandatory. In these cases, the sentencing judges had no choice in sentencing due to laws requiring mandatory minimum periods of imprisonment, habitual offender laws, statutory penalty enhancements, or other sentencing rules that mandated LWOP. Prosecutors, on the other hand, have immense power over defendants’ fates: whether or not to charge a defendant with a sentencing enhancement triggering an LWOP sentence is within their discretion. In case after L ife in prison without a chance of parole is, short of execution, the harshest imaginable punishment. 1  Life without parole (LWOP) is permanent removal from society with no chance of reentry, no hope of freedom. One should expect the American criminal justice system to condemn someone to die in prison only for the most serious offenses. Yet across the country, thousands of people are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for nonviolent crimes as petty as siphoning gasoline from an 18-wheeler, shoplifting three belts, breaking into a parked car and stealing a woman’s bagged lunch, or possessing a bottle cap smeared with heroin residue. In their cruelty and harshness, these sentences defy common sense. They are grotesquely out of proportion to the conduct they seek to punish. They offend the principle that all people have the right to be treated with humanity and respect for their inherent dignity.This report documents the thousands of lives ruined and families destroyed by sentencing people to die behind bars for nonviolent offenses, and includes detailed case studies of 110 such people. It also includes a detailed fiscal analysis tallying the $1.784 billion cost to taxpayers to keep the 3,278 prisoners currently serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses incarcerated for the rest of their lives. Our findings are based on extensive documentation of the cases of 646 prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses in the federal system and nine states. The data in this report is from the United States Sentencing Commission, Federal I. Executive Summary About 79 percent of the 3,278 prisoners serving life without parole were sentenced to die in prison for nonviolent drug crimes.
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