Inmates sit in the county jail in Williston, ND, July 26, 2013.
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Thousands locked up for life for non-violent crimes, report finds


Thousands of people convicted of non-violent crimes are serving life sentences, according to a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union.

There are currently 3,278 people who have been sentenced to life without parole for crimes as small as selling less than $10 worth of marijuana and shoplifting. The report also found that it will cost nearly $2 billion to keep those inmates incarcerated until their deaths. At a time when state and local governments are desperately trying to reduce their populations of non-violent offenders in order to reduce strain on overcrowded facilities and cut spending, these prisoners are a reminder of the much harsher “tough on crime” era of the 1980s and 1990s.

As is the case throughout the country and within the federal prison system – the home of two-thirds of those prisoners serving life sentences without parole – black prisoners far outnumber white prisoners. A black person is about 20 times more likely than a white person to be sentenced to life without parole in the federal system, the study found. In Lousiana, a full 91.4% of those serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes are black.

Life sentences without the possibility of parole are given out for a variety of reasons, but the ACLU’s analysis points to a combination of mandatory minimums and three- and four-strike rules for crimes regardless of their severity that even judges and corrections officers involved in some of the cases highlighted found too harsh.

In one case study in the report, a prisoner named Paul Carter was sentenced to life after being arrested with a bottle cap with trace amounts of heroin so miniscule it could not be weighed by police. In another case, Ronnie Chester was given a life sentence as a “habitual offender” in Louisiana afer he was arrested for possession of stolen tools he sold for $30.

Another report released last week by the Urban Institute also pointed to harsh sentencing laws as one of the drivers of prison population growth and a major reason for massive overcrowding at federal Bureau of Prisons facilities. That study recommended a number of ways to reduce prison popluations, including allowing for greater judicial discretion in sentencing and eliminating mandatory minimums.

The Department of Justice has made some small strides toward changing the way it deals with non-violent drug offenses in the future. Attorney General Eric Holder announced in August that he was recommending new guidelines for dealing with certain drug-related crimes. However, these would not apply retroactively to the men and women counted in the ACLU report.