Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Over 20 Petty Crimes that Landed People in Jail For Life Without Parole

As of last year, according to the report A Living Death Sentence: Sentenced to Die Behind Bars For WHAT? released by the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 3,200 people were serving life in prison without parole for non-violent crimes. Of the 3,278 prisoners--mostly racial minorities--doing life for nonviolent crimes, 63% were sentenced by federal courts; the rest are in nine state prison systems. Most of these cases were sentenced under mandatory minimum guidelines, for which judges had no choice but to dole out a life without parole sentence. People got life without parole for things like:

  • Possessing a crack pipe
  • Possessing a bottle cap containing a trace amount of heroin (too minute to be weighed)
  • Having traces of cocaine in clothes pockets that were invisible to the naked eye but detected in lab tests
  • Having a single crack rock at home
  • Possessing 32 grams of marijuana (worth about $380 in California) with intent to distribute
  • Passing out several grams of LSD at a Grateful Dead show
  • Acting as a go-between in the sale of $10 worth of marijuana to an undercover cop
  • Selling a single crack rock
  • Verbally negotiating another man's sale of two small pieces of fake crack to an undercover cop
  • Attempting to cash a stolen check
  • Possessing stolen scrap metal (the offender was a junk dealer)—10 valves and one elbow pipe
  • Possessing stolen wrenches
  • Siphoning gasoline from a truck
  • Stealing tools from a shed and a welding machine from a front yard
  • Shoplifting three belts from a department store
  • Shoplifting several digital cameras
  • Shoplifting two jerseys from an athletic store
  • Taking a television, circular saw, and power converter from a vacant house
  • Breaking into a closed liquor store in the middle of the night
  • Making a drunken threat to a police officer while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car
  • Being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm
  • Taking an abusive stepfather's gun from their shared home
The data examined by the ACLU comes from the federal prison system and nine state penal systems that responded to open records requests. In other words, the true number of nonviolent offenders serving life without parole is much higher.
"For 3,278 people, it was nonviolent offenses like stealing a $159 jacket or serving as a middleman in the sale of $10 of marijuana. An estimated 65% of them are Black. Many of them were struggling with mental illness, drug dependency or financial desperation when they committed their crimes. None of them will ever come home to their parents and children. And taxpayers are spending billions to keep them behind bars.
At the very least, 3,728 will die in prison for nonviolent offenses, costing the US nearly $2 billion. The ACLU makes recommendations for reform. It calls on the states and federal government to eliminate laws that mandate or allow life without parole for nonviolent crimes, and strongly urges state governors, as well as the Obama administration, to commute such disproportionate punishments. "Life without parole sentences for nonviolent offenses defy common sense," it concludes, and "are grotesquely out of proportion to the conduct they seek to punish."


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