Project Censored #23: Number of US Prison Inmates Serving Life Sentences Hits New Record

Written by on February 4, 2015 in Agencies & Systems with 0 Comments

By: James F. Tracy (Faculty Evauator-Florida Atlantic Univ.), Susan Rahman (Faculty Evaluator-College of Marin) & Elliot D. Cohen (Faculty Evaluator-Indian River State Coll.); Isabella Diaz (Student Researcher-Florida Atlantic Univ.), Chelsea Pulver (Student Researcher-College of Marin) & Pietro Pizzani, Mia Hulbert, and Fabiola Garcia (Student Researchers-Indian River State Coll.) | Project Censored


Editor's Note: Here is another in the series of Project Censored stories, part of a publication issued every year, called The 25 Most Censored Stories of 20… Most likely, these are news stories that have missed your radar, but which you are likely to find informative and enlightening, if not mind-expanding. These stories are from the latest release. The following article is about our prison system and how some individuals lives are arguably being thrown away for political reasons – without due consideration to proportionality of punishment to the crime as well as what this does to the families of those individuals.

Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst with the Sentencing Project, argued that the rise in prisoners serving life sentences has to do with political posturing over “tough on crime” measures. “Unfortunately, lifers are typically excluded from most sentencing reform conversations because there’s this sense that it’s not going to sell, politically or with the public,” Nellis said. “Legislators are saying, ‘We have to throw somebody under the bus.’”

California is the leader in lifers, with one-quarter of the country’s life-sentenced population (40,362), followed by Florida (12,549) and New York (10,245), Texas (9,031), Georgia (7,938), Ohio (6,075), Michigan (5,137), Pennsylvania (5,104), and Louisiana (4,657).

There are currently 3,281 prisoners in the US serving a life sentence—with no chance of parole—for minor, nonviolent crimes, according to a November 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Louisiana, one of nine states where inmates currently serve life sentences for nonviolent crimes, has the nation’s strictest three-strike law, which states that after three offenses the guilty person is imprisoned for life without parole.

As Ed Pilkington reported in the Guardian, the ACLU study documented “thousands of lives ruined and families destroyed” by this practice. Among those is Timothy Jackson, now fifty-three, who in 1996 was caught stealing a jacket from a New Orleans department store. “It has been very hard for me,” Jackson wrote the ACLU. “I know that for my crime I had to do some time, but a life sentence for a jacket valued at $159.”

The ACLU study reported that keeping these prisoners locked up for life costs taxpayers around $1.8 billion annually. The study stated that the US is “virtually alone in its willingness to sentence non-violent offenders to die behind bars.” Life without parole for nonviolent sentences has been ruled a violation of human rights by the European Court of Human Rights.

With 2.3 million people imprisoned in the US today, Felicia Gustin of War Times has asked, is locking people away the answer to creating safer communities? She reported on the work of the Restorative Community Conferencing Program, based in Oakland, California. According to the program’s coordinator, Denise Curtis, “restorative justice is a different approach to crime. . . . Our current justice system asks: What law was broken? Who broke it? and How should they be punished? Restorative justice asks: Who has been harmed? What needs have arisen because of the harm? and Whose responsibility is it to make things as right as they can?”

[Read more here]

Robert O'Leary, JD BARA

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