In an in-depth study of people serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses in the United States, the ACLU found that at least 3,278 prisoners fit this category in federal and state prisons combined. Louisiana has the highest number in the nation, with 429 individuals serving life without parole.
“A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses” features key statistics about these prisoners, an analysis of the laws that produced their sentences, and case studies of 110 men and women serving these sentences. Of the 3,278 prisoners, 79 percent were convicted of nonviolent, drug-related crimes such as possession or distribution; 20 percent of nonviolent property crimes like theft.
“The punishments these people received are grotesquely out of proportion to the crimes they committed,” said Jennifer Turner, ACLU Human Rights Researcher and author of the report. “In a humane society, we can hold people accountable for drug and property crimes without throwing away the key.”
The ACLU estimates that, of the 3,278 serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses, 65 percent are Black, 18 percent are white and 16 percent are Latino, evidence of extreme racial disparities. Of the 3,278, most were sentenced under mandatory sentencing policies, including mandatory minimums and habitual offender laws that required them to be incarcerated until they die. The ACLU estimates that federal and state taxpayers spend $1.8 billion keeping these people in prison for life instead of more appropriate terms.
“The people profiled in our report are an extreme example of the millions of lives ruined by the persistent ratcheting up of our sentencing laws over the last 40 years,” said Vanita Gupta, Deputy Legal Director of the ACLU. “We must change our sentencing practices to make our justice system smart, fair, and humane. It’s time to undo the damage wrought by four decades of the War on Drugs and ‘tough-on-crime’ attitudes.”
In Louisiana, Warden Burl Cain of Angola has described these sentences as “cruel and unusual punishment.” Patrick Matthews, sentenced for stealing tools from a tool shed in Slidell, said “It feels like you are dead to the world, empty inside and stripped of your children’s life…Stripped from the world, who treats you as if you are dead, in the tomb.” Marjorie R. Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said “this is another illustration of Louisiana’s shameful status as the world’s leading incarcerator. It makes no sense to sentence people to die in prison when they aren’t violent, haven’t hurt anyone, and could be rehabilitated to become productive members of society.”
In addition to interviews, correspondence, and a survey of hundreds of prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses, the ACLU based “A Living Death” on court records, a prisoner survey, and data from the United States Sentencing Commission, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and state Departments of Corrections obtained through Freedom of Information Act and open records requests.
“A Living Death” features comments from the prisoners’ family members, and in multiple instances, prisoners’ sentencing judges express frustration and outrage at the severity of the punishment the law required. Judge Milton I. Shadur told Rudy Martinez as he sentenced Martinez to life without parole: “[F]airness has departed from the system.”
The report, released earlier this month, includes recommendations to federal and state governments for changes in sentencing and clemency. The proposed policy reforms would help bring balance back to sentencing—crucial steps to reduce our nation’s dependence on incarceration.
“We must change the laws that have led to such unconscionable sentences,” said Turner. “For those now serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses, President Obama and state governors must step in and reduce their sentences. To do nothing is a failure of justice.”
The report is available for download at www.aclu.org/fairandsmart.
This article originally published in the November 25, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.