A Living Death: Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses

Document Date: November 12, 2013

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.


Explore the Report:

  1. Executive Summary
  2. Recommendations
  3. Methodology
    1. Defining “Life without Parole”
    2. Defining “Nonviolent”
  4. Findings: The Use of Life without Parole for Nonviolent Crimes
    1. Rise in Life without Parole Sentences
    2. Nonviolent Crimes that Result in Life without Parole Sentences
    3. Who is Serving Life without Parole for Nonviolent Crimes: The Numbers
    4. Racial Disparity in Life without Parole Sentencing
  5. How We Got Here: Skyrocketing Extreme Sentences and Mass Incarceration
    1. The “War on Drugs” and Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws
    2. Three-Strikes and Other Habitual Offender Laws
    3. Changes to Parole Laws and Other Limitations on Release
  6. Case Studies: 110 Offenders Sentenced to Die in Prison for Nonviolent Crimes
    1. First-Time Nonviolent Offenders
    2. Nonviolent Teenage Offenders
    3. Tying Judges’ Hands: Mandatory Life without Parole
    4. Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses under Habitual Offender Laws
      1. State Habitual Offenders
      2. Federal Habitual Offenders
    5. Life without Parole for Marijuana
    6. Life without Parole Due to Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity
    7. Aging and Elderly Nonviolent Prisoners
    8. Terminally Ill Nonviolent Prisoners
  7. The Reality of Serving Life without Parole
    1. What it Means to be Sentenced to Life without Parole
      1. Hopelessness, Depression, and Suicidal Thoughts and Attempts
      2. Isolation from Family
    2. Prison Conditions
      1. Violence
      2. Solitary Confinement
      3. Restricted Access to Drug Treatment, Vocational, and Educational Programs
    3. Limited Judicial Review of Death-in-Prison Sentences
    4. Virtually No Chance of Clemency or Compassionate Release
  8. The Financial Cost of Sentencing Nonviolent Offenders to Life without Parole
    1. Methodology
    2. Fiscal Cost-Savings Estimates
  9. Comparative International Practice and Fundamental Rights to Humane Treatment, Proportionate Sentence, and Rehabilitation
    1. Out of Step with the World
    2. Disproportionate Sentences Violate International Law
    3. Right to Rehabilitation Under International Law
    4. U.S. Constitutional Law

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