More than two-thirds of the people serving life without parole in state and federal prisons are minorities, and three-fourths of the juveniles locked away for life are minorities, most of them Black, according to a study released recently by The Sentencing Project, based in Washington, D.C.
The numbers reflect startling disparities in America’s justice and prison systems, the report’s authors said. They hope extensive research presented in “No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America” will help lead to change.
“We know that because there is a disparate representation of Blacks in the prison population, they are also disproportionately represented among those receiving life sentences and life sentences without the possibility of parole,” said Ashley Nellis, one of the authors of “No Exit.”
Blacks comprise 12 percent of the general population
in America, but represent 28 percent of total arrests and 38 percent of persons convicted of a felony in a state court and in state prison, the report stated.
“There needs to be a change. Just think about all of the human potential wasted with life sentences,” Nellis told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “It’s as if 140,000 people have been locked away, and they have said they will never be rehabilitated.”
The report is being released at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear two Florida cases of juveniles sentenced to life without parole.
In Graham v. Florida, 17- year-old Terrance Graham was convicted of taking part in an armed home-invasion robbery while on probation for committing a violent crime when he was 16 years old, and was sentenced to life without parole. In the case of Sullivan v. Florida, Joe Sullivan was convicted of sexual battery committed when he was 13 years old and sentenced to life without parole. Sullivan is now 33 and is severely debilitated by multiple sclerosis.
Work on the “No Exit” project began before the Supreme Court agreed to hear the two cases on subjects discussed in the report, Nellis said.
The report calls for the elimination of sentences of life without parole and restoring discretion to parole boards to determine suitability for release.
Of the 140,610 people now serving life sentences in state and federal prisons, 6,807 of those were juveniles when they committed their crimes, the report stated.
In five states — Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Nevada and New York — at least one in six prisoners is serving a life sentence.
Teddy, an 18-year-old from South Central Los Angeles, faces sentencing in a California courtroom for his role in the shooting of two people more than three years ago. He was 15 at the time of the crime, said Kim McGill, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition.
His parents scraped together money to pay a defense lawyer, but the lawyer presented no witnesses or evidence to defend the teen.
McGill said, Teddy, a Black teen, faces a possible life sentence. She’s hoping he won’t become another California life sentence prison statistic and will argue that Teddy had inadequate legal counsel.
“He’s facing the possibility of 90 years in prison for a crime where no one died. It was a serious offense, but no one died,” McGill told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
California, a state with a current deficit in the billions, spends from $35,000 to $200,000 a year on each of its 176,000 state prisoners, McGill said.
“In California, there are 33 adult prisons and 29 public colleges,” she said. “California has been addicted to incarceration for a long time. It’s part
The state figures prominently in several categories in
the report, which shows:
• In five states — Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Nevada and New York — at least one in six prisoners is serving a life sentence.
• Five states — California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania — each have more than 3,000 people serving life without parole. Pennsylvania leads the nation with 345 juveniles serving sentences
of life without parole.
• In six states — Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania and South Dakota — and the federal government, all life sentences are imposed without
the possibility of parole.
• The dramatic growth in life sentences is not primarily a result of higher crime rates, but of policy changes that have imposed harsher punishments and restricted parole consideration.
• Over the last quarter-century, the number of individuals serving life sentences has more than quadrupled from 34,000 in 1984.
While states are looking now at where they can cut costs, they should look at options for their prison populations, especially those who have been locked up for decades and pose no threat, Nellis said.
“Prisoners should be allowed to go before a professional parole board,” she said. “That board would determine whether or not they should be released.”
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