In its latest report on sentencing, the Sentencing Project noted the glaring racial disparities in life without possibility of parole sentences. Blacks are much more likely to receive this sentence than whites. The Sentencing Project ticked off the usual checklist of reasons for this: pitifully inadequate legal representation, prosecutorial and juror racial bias, the continuing public clamor for tough sentencing, and the growing sense that it's cheaper, easier, and legally less messy to impose a life sentence without possibility of parole on the convicted than the death penalty.
But what happens when those receiving life without parole are not rapists and murderers which is the assumption that most of those locked down for life are, but are non-violent offenders? There are thousands of them.
More than 10,000 persons are now locked up in America's jails for life with no chance of release. The majority of these non-violent offenders are there for either drug offenses or property crime. Though they did not rape, bomb or kill anyone in the commission of these crimes, the number of non-violent offenders serving lifetime sentences has steadily increased during the past decade. The number of life sentences without parole has soared for violent offenders to more than 100 times the number in 1980. The U.S. stands virtually alone among the major industrialized nations in imposing life without parole for a crime other than the most heinous. In Britain, life without parole is imposed only for homicide and even then it generally must involve an aggravating factor such as child abduction, torture or terrorism. According to a study by the University of San Francisco School of Law's Center for Law and Global Justice only 41 prisoners were serving life terms without parole in that country. By contrast, more than 40,000 persons are serving life without parole sentences in the U.S.
Occasionally, one of those sentenced to life without parole makes brief news because their sentence for stealing videotapes or a clothing item, or being an accomplice, wittingly or unwittingly, in a drug deal, seems so out of the pale that it brings a momentary public gasp, and shouts about the injustice and unfairness of such a sentence. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder drew attention to these kinds of cases when he called for a sharp reversal in harsh sentencing for many persons that are not violent offenders, and who are likely to be black or Hispanic. Holder cited not just the unfairness of this sentence but the staggering financial cost, not to mention the human cost of them.
Yet, only one state out of the fifty states does not have some form of life without parole statute on its books. The life without parole means exactly that in six states and the federal system which eliminated the parole possibility for such a sentence in 1987. The states have taken their cue from the federal sentencing guidelines that proscribe 43 levels of punishment for crimes. Level 43 is the most severe, and it includes life without parole for certain types of non-violent offenses.
Though Holder has called for a new look at and approach to the types of sentences handed down, and who gets the toughest sentences, the life without parole sentences have become more the norm in sentencing today than in the past because they serve a handy purpose. They are a perfect foil to the death penalty. There are endless levels of state and federal reviews, appeals, and often unfavorable public attention drawn to a death sentence. The cases are time consuming, and costly and they are paid for with the taxpayer's dime. A life sentence without parole skirts the rigor and drawn out legal requirements of death penalty appeals and review. At the same time, life without parole sentences still sates the public's demand for a harsh punishment for crimes. State courts have been willing even eager participants In handing out more and more life sentences without parole since these sentences are not held to the same scrupulous standards of review that a death penalty sentence is, and they are not subject to review as death penalty cases are.
There's little doubt as Holder and others have noted that the U.S. is wildly out of step with all Western nations in how it sentences its offenders, and more particularly who those offenders are likely to be namely, the poorest, and minorities. Few have any reservation that those who wantonly kill, maim, torture, and rape should be put away for the longest stretches and that this serves society's interests and security. But for someone whose crime is peddling marijuana or for theft or identity fraud as one defendant in Georgia was guilty of and sentenced to 150 years hardly serves that interest. This is punishment pure and simple that's far beyond cruel and unusual.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network. His latest ebook '47 Percent Negro': A Chronicle of the Wackiest Racial Assaults on President Obama is now available (Amazon).