Life 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 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 case reviewed by the ACLU, the sentencing judge said on
the record that he or she opposed the mandatory LWOP sentence as too severe but had no discretion to take individual circumstances into account or override the prosecutor’s charging decision.
As striking as they are, the numbers documented in this report underrepresent the true number of people who will die in prison after being convicted of a nonviolent crime in this country. The thousands of people noted above do not include the substantial number of prisoners who will die behind bars
after being convicted of a crime classified as “violent” (such as a conviction for assault after a bar fight), nor do the numbers include “de facto” LWOP sentences that exceed the convicted person’s natural lifespan, such as a sentence of 350 years for a series of nonviolent drug sales. Although less-violent and
de facto LWOP cases fall outside of the scope of this report, they remain a troubling manifestation of extreme sentencing policies in this country.
Nonviolent Crimes that Result in Life-without-Parole Sentences
We documented scores of cases in which people were sentenced to LWOP for nonviolent drug crimes of possession, sale, or distribution of marijuana, methamphetamine, crack and powder cocaine, heroin, or other drugs, including the following:
• possession of a crack pipe
• possession of a bottle cap containing a trace, unweighable amount of heroin
• having a trace amount of cocaine in clothes pockets that was so minute it was invisible to
the naked eye and detected only in lab tests
• having a single, small crack rock at home
• possession of 32 grams of marijuana with intent to distribute
• acting as a go-between in the sale of $10 of marijuana to an undercover officer
• selling a single crack rock
• verbally negotiating another man’s sale of two small pieces of fake crack to an undercover officer
• serving as a middleman in the sale of $20 of crack to an undercover officer
• sharing several grams of LSD with Grateful Dead concertgoers
• having a stash of over-the-counter decongestant pills that could be manufactured into methamphetamine
In cases documented by the ACLU, the nonviolent property crimes that resulted in life-without-parole sentences include the following:
• attempting to cash a stolen check
• a junk-dealer’s possession of stolen junk metal (10 valves and one elbow pipe)
• possession of stolen wrenches
• siphoning gasoline from a truck
• stealing tools from a tool shed and a welding machine from a yard
• shoplifting three belts from a department store
• shoplifting several digital cameras
• shoplifting two jerseys from an athletic store
• taking a television, circular saw, and a power converter from a vacant house
• breaking into a closed liquor store in the middle of the night
Other nonviolent crimes that resulted in life-without-parole sentences include the following:
• making a drunken threat to a police officer while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car
• possession of a firearm by a convicted felon
• taking an abusive stepfather’s gun from their shared home
These cases are not outliers or flukes. Sentencing nonviolent offenders to die in prison is the direct outcome of harsh sentencing laws. This is the end result of policies put in place in the 1980s and 1990s: mothers and fathers separated from their children forever, toddlers and teens left parentless for a lifetime, aging and infirm parents left without family, first-time nonviolent offenders permanently denied a second chance, and young Black and low-income men and women locked up for the rest of their lives at as young as 18 years old.
Who is Serving Life without Parole for Nonviolent Crimes?
In the cases we documented, the prisoners serving LWOP are generally first-time drug offenders or nonviolent repeat offenders. These nonviolent lifers include drug couriers; drug addicts who sold small amounts of drugs in order to support their addictions; petty thieves; and girlfriends or wives who were caught up in the mass arrests of members of drug conspiracies and, because they knew little about their partners’ or ex-partners’ drug activities, were unable to trade information for more lenient sentences. Some did distribute large quantities of drugs but have been incarcerated for decades and have demonstrated both remorse and rehabilitation. Others were sentenced to LWOP for crimes they committed as teenagers, in some cases for their minor roles in drug conspiracies starting when they were as young as 15 years old. Several are Vietnam War veterans who were introduced to drugs during their military service and battled
addiction after leaving the military. The vast majority come from poor families and did not graduate from high school.
Most are Black, and in some cases the circumstances of their stop, search, and subsequent arrests appear to have involved racial profiling. Some are mentally ill and imprisoned for behavior directly related to their mental illnesses. Others spiraled into drug addiction when they could not find work, and some began selling drugs to pay the bills after they lost their jobs or to pay off medical debts incurred when they
were uninsured. Most of the nonviolent crimes for which these prisoners are serving life without parole would be more appropriately addressed outside of the criminal justice system altogether, some by significantly shorter incarceration, and some with more readily available drug treatment and mental health
resources. In many of the cases documented by the ACLU, offenders committed their crimes because of drug addictions and had never been offered state-sponsored drug treatment, even during previous brief stints in jail and despite their willingness to enter treatment. Many of these addicts told the ACLU they asked for treatment after previous drug arrests but were denied. When they reoffended, they were locked up
for the rest of their lives.
Racial Disparity in Life-without- Parole Sentencing
There is a staggering racial disparity in life-withoutparole sentencing for nonviolent offenses. Blacks are disproportionately represented in the nationwide prison and jail population, but the disparities are even worse among the nationwide LWOP population and worse still among the nonviolent LWOP population. Based on data provided by the United States Sentencing Commission and state Departments of Corrections, the ACLU estimates that nationwide, 65.4 percent of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses are Black, 17.8 percent are white, and 15.7 percent are Latino.
In the 646 cases examined for this report, the ACLU found that 72.9 percent of these documented prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses are Black, 19.8 percent are white, and 6.9 percent are Latino.
According to data collected and analyzed by the ACLU, Black prisoners comprise 91.4 percent of the nonviolent LWOP prison population in Louisiana, 78.5 percent in Mississippi, 70 percent in Illinois, 68.2 percent in South Carolina, 60.4 percent in Florida, 57.1 percent in Oklahoma, and 60 percent in the federal system. In the federal system, Blacks were sentenced to LWOP for nonviolent crimes at 20 times the
rate of whites. In Louisiana, the ACLU’s survey found that Blacks were 23 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to LWOP for a nonviolent crime. The racial disparities range from 33-to-1 in Illinois to 18-to-1 in Oklahoma, 8-to-1 in Florida, and 6-to-1 in Mississippi.
The rate of Latinos serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses ranges from a high of 12.7 per 1,000,000 residents in Louisiana to 9 in Oklahoma, 7.32 in Florida, 1.25 in Illinois, 11.24 in the federal system, and 0 in South Carolina and Mississippi. Latinos are serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes
at a rate that is almost 8 times the rate of whites in Illinois and almost twice the rate of whites in Louisiana. Blacks are sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent offenses at rates that suggest unequal treatment and that cannot be explained by white and Black defendants’ differential involvement in crime alone.