Prison Culture: Thousands Serving Life Sentences For Petty Crimes
A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has revealed that thousands of Americans in prison are serving life sentences for non-violent, often petty crimes like shoplifting or possession of crack cocaine. In many of these cases, the state laws set mandatory minimum sentences on certain crimes which prevented judges from being able to hand down more appropriate sentences.
According to the report, more than 2,000 of the 3,281 prisoners serving life sentences for non-violent offenses were in the federal prison system, costing the US taxpayers $1.8 billion to keep them imprisoned for life. Approximately 65 percent of these inmates are African-American.
The ACLU blamed the findings largely on “late-twentieth-century obsession with mass incarceration and extreme, inhumane penalties.” The report cited that life without parole was almost never handed down until the early 1970s.
Among other western nations, only the United Kingdom still hands down life without parole penalties and, even then, only in 46 murder cases. France, Germany, and Spain all have constitutional amendments banning life without parole.
On the other hand, some of the crimes that have gotten people sent to prison for life without parole in the US include:
-Possession of a crack pipe
-Attempting to cash a stolen check
-Possessing 11 pieces of stolen scrap metal
-Possessing stolen wrenches
-Siphoning gas from a truck
-Stealing two basketball jerseys
-Breaking into a liquor store
Of all 3,278 non-violent offenders in prison without parole, 79 percent were convicted on drug charges. The report also notes that the number of all prisoners serving life sentences has quadrupled over the last two decades. In 1992, 12,453 inmates were serving life without parole sentences. In 2012, that number skyrocketed to 49,081.
There are currently about 2.3 million people incarcerated in US prisons, more than the entire population of New Mexico, Nebraska, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Hawaii, and Maine. The United States has more people in prison than China, which has a population more than four times larger. Roughly 22 percent of the 2.3 million inmates are serving drug related sentences.