ACLU Launches New Report on Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses

On November 13, 2013, the ACLU published an in-depth study of people imprisoned in the U.S. with no chance of parole for nonviolent offenses – including relatively minor drug and property crimes such as taking a wallet from a hotel room or serving as the middleman in the sale of $10 worth of marijuana. We found that at least 3,278 prisoners are serving these sentences in federal and state prisons combined.

A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses documents the thousands of lives ruined and families destroyed by sentencing people to die behind bars for nonviolent offenses and analyzes the laws that led to these harsh sentences. The 110 prisoners profiled in A Living Death are extreme examples of the millions of lives ruined by the persistent ratcheting up of our sentencing laws over the last forty years. As the report makes clear, we must change our sentencing practices to make our justice system smart, fair, and humane.

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 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.

Key findings from the report include:

Life without parole for nonviolent offenses is cruel, inhumane, and wasteful
Sentencing someone to life without the possibility of parole is the harshest punishment possible, except for the death penalty. And yet, the federal government and some states impose this punishment on people for nonviolent drug and property offenses. The federal courts account for 63% of the 3,278 life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent offenses. In the federal system, 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. The remaining prisoners are in Louisiana (429 prisoners), Florida (270), Alabama (244), Mississippi (93), South Carolina (88), Oklahoma (49), Georgia (20), Illinois (10), and Missouri (1). This practice is unnecessarily devastating and wasteful;the ACLU estimates that federal and state taxpayers spend $1.8 billion keeping these people in prison for life instead of more appropriate terms.

Life without parole for nonviolent crimes is part of a larger problem—mandatory sentencing and the failed War on Drugs
The prevalence of life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent offenses is a symptom of the relentless onslaught of more than four decades of the War on Drugs and policies such as three-strikes and mandatory minimum sentencing. This report is proof: 79% of people serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses were convicted of violating our nation’s drug laws.  

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. 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.

LWOP sentences for nonviolent crimes are plagued by racial disparities

There is a staggering racial disparity in life-without-parole sentencing for nonviolent offenses. Blacks are disproportionately represented in the nationwide prison and jail population, but the disparities are even worse among those serving life without parole, and worse still among those serving the sentence for a nonviolent crime. A Living Death also offers the first racial breakdown of the population serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses nationwide: we estimate based on data we received from the federal government and several states, and on our own surveys of people serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses, that 65% of them are Black, 18% white, and 16% Latino, and the disparity is worse in some states.

We can take a smarter, fairer, and more humane approach

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.

Many of the nonviolent crimes for which these prisoners are serving life without parole would be more appropriately addressed either outside the criminal justice system altogether or with significantly shorter prison terms.

It’s time to get rid of our extreme sentencing laws, particularly those that lead to life without parole sentences for nonviolent offenses. To start, Congress and state legislatures should repeal all laws that result in sentences of life without parole for nonviolent offenses. President Obama and state governors should use their executive clemency powers to reduce the sentences of people serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses. Help us fight extreme sentences by signing this petition.

Media coverage of the report so far included Huffington Post (it was on the front page), The GuardianMother JonesBusiness InsiderMcClatchySalon,The EconomistGawkerThink Progress, and much more. Stay tuned for additional coverage in the coming days including a major NYT column. Ads (image, attached) featuring photographs of six prisoners profiled in A Living Death will appear in (print and digital) national outlets such as JetThe Nation,The New York TimesUSA Today, and The Washington Post. We also posted “11 Seriously WTF Reasons You Can Be Put Behind Bars FOR LIFE” to our BuzzFeed Community page.

Learn more and read the complete report at

A Living Death is a co-production of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program (HRP) and the ACLU’s Center for Justice. Jennifer Turner, Human Rights Researcher with HRP is the report’s author.

Publication Date: 
Nov 13, 2013
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