Extreme Sentencing – the "New Normal?"

It should outrage us that a homeless man will be in prison for the rest of his life because he was the middleman in the sale of $10 worth of marijuana. We can all pretty much agree that the punishment of growing old and dying behind bars for such offenses is a wildly extreme, tragic and wasteful overreaction to the crime.

But it should not surprise us. Cases like this man's are just the tip of the iceberg.

Hundreds of thousands of people in American prisons are serving decades-long sentences that are far out of proportion to their crimes. They comprise an increasingly aging prison population that costs more and more to maintain as their health deteriorates, increasingly strapping state budgets. In many cases, the person incarcerated could have been effectively held accountable in the community with no prison time at all. In other more serious cases where incarceration may be warranted, the person incarcerated could successfully return to the community after a much shorter time in prison, especially if job training and education were available to ease reentry. But this is not the norm.

Instead, in jurisdictions all around the country, incarceration has been touted as the solution to scores of problems it is ill equipped to address, pushing the number of people in jail and prison to over 2.3 million people. That's more than the number of people living in New Mexico. This prison-focused punishment system is wildly expensive, destructive to families and communities, and does not work. Research shows diminishing returns of long sentences—the longer a person is incapacitated and removed from family and work opportunities, the less bang we get for the buck in terms of reduced recidivism.

Many policy makers agree that sentencing law relics of the 1980's and 1990's are ineffective. So what stands in our way? For too many Americans, the long sentences we mete out are just the "new normal." It is hard to shock us when it comes to our criminal justice system. The ease with which we throw away certain people's lives, particularly the lives of black and brown men, women, and children, demonstrates a general disregard and devaluation of certain communities as irredeemable and unworthy of meaningful interventions that might actually change the course of their lives and heal their communities, and to which many other communities have easier access.

Much of the extreme sentencing in America is justified in the name of victims, with the aim of preventing violence and keeping communities safe. The irony and the lesser known fact is that the majority of crime victims in this country come from the same high incarceration communities. Moreover, polls of victims of crime have found that the vast majority do not want the people responsible for hurting them to be incarcerated if alternatives are available. What matters most to victims of crime is that what happened to them not happen to anyone else. They see the sky-high recidivism rates, and recognize that long prison terms are doing a terrible job of ensuring that people don't commit crimes in the future. If our goal is to promote safe and healthy communities, we need a different strategy, one that promotes real solutions, such as robust, community-based programs that provide job training, education, classes, and other accountability measures to people who have committed crimes.

There's a saying that a rising tide lifts all boats. The same is true of our national obsession with extreme sentencing. The 3,278 people profiled in the ACLU's recently-released report, A Living Death, were convicted of relatively minor drug and property crimes. And yet even they received sentences at the extreme end of the spectrum: life without parole. It is time to hold our system accountable for its actions.

We can do better. We know that extreme sentencing is not the answer. Help us fight it at www.aclu.org/fairandsmart.

The complete report A Living Death: Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses is available here.

Read some of the stories of people serving life without parole on our interactive story map.

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T. Turner-Vaughn

This is a very touching story and real life situation that a lot more people need to be made aware of. In addition to the harsh LWOP sentences being handed out, lets not forget about all the other injustices within the criminal justice system that are also going on. A $20 drug charge should not warrant LWOP or 30 years behind bars.

I'm glad there are people like myself that do care and are trying to be the voice for those behind bars that often have their voices taken away when the hand cuffs and shackles are put on them with these excessive sentences.

Anonymous

I wish you people were just honest and say you do not want anyone to go to prison.
I mean this article start off telling stories about how some 'non violent' criminals are sentenced for too long prison sentences.
You then flow into saying how victims of crimes do not want to see criminals go to prison if there are alternatives in place. Never mind the fact that I do not but that, however, but do we really want murders, rapists, and violent offenders to get off and not go to prison.

Anonymous

"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Anonymous

passage from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which I think sums up my take on our current “justice” system and rule of law.
“Did you really think we want those laws observed?" said Dr. Ferris. "We want them to be broken. You'd better get it straight that it's not a bunch of boy scouts you're up against... We're after power and we mean it. . . There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What's there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced or objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. Now that's the system, Mr. Reardon, that's the game, and once you understand it, you'll be much easier to deal with."

Anonymous

I live in Florida. I was already planning to move soon, then I saw the map. Now I'm in GTFO mode. *shudder*

Anonymous

Leaving Florida ASAP. Clearly unsafe to live here or in S. Carolina. I didn't know it was this bad. I wanted to move out before, now I have accelerated my timeframe for escaping this prison state.

SusanaIM

For all of you out there fleeing the South, it is a good idea before you move to open a US map to avoid at all cost RED States who are Civil War Reenactors in need of "Cotton Pickers" and slaves in the form of prisoners. This way they don't have to pay for wages and no Worker's Compensation in case of labor related accidents. WAKE UP AMERICA!

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