A Living Death is the first-ever 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.
The report includes the first count of U.S. prisoners doing life for nonviolent crimes: 3,278. Of these prisoners, 63% were sentenced by federal courts; the rest are in nine state prison systems. Louisiana has the highest number in the nation, with 429 individuals serving life without parole. The report offers 110 stories of individual prisoners waiting to die behind bars, many of which include accounts from the prisoners' parents, children, and spouses who have been punished emotionally and economically by their loved ones’ permanent absence. These profiles cover the prisoners' lives in depth before and after their sentencing, and the circumstances of their nonviolent crimes.
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 offenses. Not only does this devastate families, it is extremely expensive. If the prisoners now serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses could have their sentences reduced and become eligible for parole, we would save more than $1.8 billion in state and federal taxes. This is a waste of human life and taxpayer dollars.
In Louisiana, Warden Burl Cain of Angola has described these sentences as "cruel and unusual punishment." Patrick Matthews, sentenced for stealing tools from a tool shed in Slidell, said "It feels like you are dead to the world, empty inside and stripped of your children's life…Stripped from the world, who treats you as if you are dead, in the tomb."
LWOP for nonviolent crimes is part of a larger problem—mass incarceration 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 “tough-on crime” policies, which drove the passage of unnecessarily harsh sentencing laws, including three-strikes and mandatory minimum laws. This report is proof: 79% of people serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses were convicted of violating our nation’s harsh drug laws. Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with the total number of people incarcerated in jails and prisons across the country now surpassing 2.3 million. This is true even though crime rates have fallen over the last 20 years.
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 that 65% of them are Black, 18% white, and 16% Latino, with the percentage even higher in some states, a difference so extreme that it suggests unequal treatment of Blacks by the criminal justice system.
We can take a smarter, fairer, and more humane approach
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. It’s time to end this inhumane practice.