More than 3,200 people in federal and state prisons are serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes in this country, according to a study released Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report, titled ‘A Living Death,’ relays the stories of thousands of people impacted by the United States’ “late-twentieth-century obsession with mass incarceration and extreme, inhumane penalties” which leaves them likely to die behind bars even though they are far from being serious or violent offenders.
From possessing a bottle cap smeared with heroin residue to working as a middleman in a $10 drug sale, the ACLU says that punishment thought to be reserved for the most violent criminals in the US is also meted out to others – oftentimes for minor crimes.
Of the 3,278 people across the country serving life sentences without parole, the vast majority surveyed by the ACLU – 83.4 percent – received the punishment that was mandatory under sentencing laws, leaving the judge no other choice.
At about 12.40pm on 2 January 1996, Timothy Jackson took a jacket from the Maison Blanche department store in New Orleans, draped it over his arm, and walked out of the store without paying for it. When he was accosted by a security guard, Jackson said: “I just needed another jacket, man.”
A few months later Jackson was convicted of shoplifting and sent to Angola prison in Louisiana. That was 16 years ago. Today he is still incarcerated in Angola, and will stay there for the rest of his natural life having been condemned to die in jail. All for the theft of a jacket, worth $159.
Jackson, 53, is one of 3,281 prisoners in America serving life sentences with no chance of parole for non-violent crimes. Some, like him, were given the most extreme punishment short of execution for shoplifting; one was condemned to die in prison for siphoning petrol from a truck; another for stealing tools from a tool shed; yet another for attempting to cash a stolen cheque.
All in all, the totals reveal that the US is sentencing 400 percent more people to life without parole than it was 20 years ago.
“The explosion in life without parole sentences is part of a larger, failed approach to criminal justice – an approach characterized by unnecessarily and unproductively extreme penalties,” the ACLU says. “The result? An aging prison population that costs more and more to lock up as their health deteriorates, strapped state budgets, and too many people locked up for too long.”
The report calls on state and federal sentencing laws that mandate or allow life without parole for non-violent crimes to be abolished. In addition, it calls on state governors and the Obama administration to commute those with outsized sentences.