Life in prison for selling $10 worth of marijuana

The ACLU has a report on life sentences in prison without parole. Many such sentences are for non-violent crimes.

The number of people sentenced to life without parole
has quadrupled nationwide in the past 20 years, even
while violent crime has been declining during that
period. Not only has the use of life-without-parole sentences
exploded, but the punishment is available for a broader
range of offenses, and those sentenced to LWOP include
people convicted of nonviolent crimes, including low-level
nonviolent offenses.

According to data collected and analyzed
by the ACLU, 3,278 prisoners are serving LWOP for drug,
property, and other nonviolent crimes in the United States
as of 2012. Our data on the people serving LWOP shows
marked geographic and socioeconomic patterns, and reveals
stark racial disparity in life-without-parole sentencing for
nonviolent offenses.

Let me guess – lots more white people? No?

Life without parole used to be extremely rare in the US, until the Supreme Court banned the death penalty in 1972. Since then the numbers have exploded.

LWOP has not only expanded to nearly every state but also
is an available sentence for many more crimes. In 37 states
and in the federal system, a life-without-parole sentence is
available for non-homicide offenses, including convictions
for selling drugs, burglary, robbery, carjacking, and battery.
In 29 states, an LWOP sentence is mandatory upon conviction
of particular crimes, thus denying judges any discretion to
consider the circumstances of the crime or the defendant.

(There are reference notes in the original.)

The net result of this expansion is that LWOP is now used
at historically high levels to punish people who at one
time would have received much more lenient sentences.
In addition, people sentenced to LWOP are robbed of the
opportunity for release, which is rooted in the belief that
people have the capacity for growth and rehabilitation and
the ability to successfully reintegrate into society. Indeed,
studies show that lifers who are released are very unlikely
to commit new crimes. A sentence to life without parole,
however, means the prisoner has no prospect of release
in his or her lifetime, regardless of his or her efforts at
rehabilitation: virtually every person sentenced to LWOP dies
in prison.

What can possibly be the point of that? Just brutality for the sake of brutality?

Honestly on so many criteria the US cannot be considered an advanced developed democracy. In many ways we’re anti-development and hostile to advancing.


  1. RJW says

    LWOP and mandatory sentencing for trivial offences seem like ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ by the standards of liberal democracy, and coincidentally of course, nice little earners for the private prison industry.
    It’s very grotesque reasoning, a succession of minor crimes apparently is equivalent to a single major crime under U.S. sentencing regimes. I’d bet that LWOP is extremely rare in other Western countries.

  2. Julie says

    Does this correlate with the introduction of for profit prisons? I have to admit I can’t think of many *non violent* things I could think of that deserve LWOP.

  3. Blanche Quizno says

    Capitalism cannot thrive without slaves. When slavery proper was outlawed, Jim Crow created de facto slavery in its place – black people had to be employed or they could be arrested, imprisoned for long sentences, and “shared” with other prisons on work gangs; an employed black person had to have his employer’s permission to travel or seek alternative employment, and there was no real concept of equal pay for equal work. Lynch mobs always stood at the ready to enforce the social contract.

    The War on Drugs filled our prisons with young men, who now can be forced to work (or be punished extrajudicially with solitary confinement, among other options) at rates of pennies per hour in the private prisons. The prisoners make a coupla bucks an hour in federal prisons, enough to send a tidy little check home every month. Not so in the private prisons – they’re almost pure slave labor. Look up the Prison Industrial Complex for descriptions of this absolutely anti-justice concept.

    There are a few jobs that should never be turned over to for-profit corporations – imprisoning people is one.

  4. Blanche Quizno says

    Interestingly enough, my former friend’s gang-affiliated, career-criminal, menace to society, junkie husband, upon taking out his 3rd strike (3-strikes-and-you’re-out state) with two violent armed robberies – he helped a notorious gang (smart fellow) – he was sentenced to 70-100 years, NOT LWOP. Granted, for someone in his 30s already, 70-100 years is the same thing, but still… HOW can a string of non-violent crimes earn LWOP, whereas 4 violent crimes simply accrues numbers?

    BTW, one addition to post #3, in the decades after the Civil War, black men who were imprisoned for minor infractions were routinely “sold” to other prisons to work on their work gangs.

  5. says

    As a superpower, the United States should be exemplary of what can be achieved by the judicious application of power and capable of leading the rest of the world, yet on many measures it seems to do spectacularly worse than the majority of comparable countries. On a simplistic graph of healthcare expenditure per capita versus average longevity, for instance, the USA is an extreme outlier and not in the good way you would expect. The demographic increase of a highly racialised, mass-incarcerated population in commercially run prisons for corporate profit points to colossal systemic social injustices which are only exacerbated when there is no recognition that rehabilitation and social re-integration is the aim of depriving prisoners of their liberty – the deprivation of liberty is not the desired end in itself.

  6. smrnda says

    I notice that too F, there are mandatory minimums for drugs, but no mandatory minimums for rape, which enable rapists to do no prison time at all.

  7. mildlymagnificent says

    Hell’s teeth. Tourists go to places like Port Arthur to marvel over the idiocies of people being transported to the colonies for stealing sixpence worth of ribbon. And they do so thinking that this sort of nonsense has been abandoned by the modern governments of what used to be colonies. Apparently not.

  8. RJW says

    @3 Blanche Quizno,
    “Capitalism cannot thrive without slaves.”

    Actually capitalism, most likely, can’t thrive with slaves.

    If slavery and later, de facto slavery existed in the US it probably didn’t have much to do with capitalist imperatives, I doubt if the slave-owning class in America were capitalists by the standard definition of the word.

    Actually capitalism doesn’t need slaves, it has the working class, it’s much more economical for capitalists to employ labor. Medieval capitalism in Europe wasn’t dependent on slavery.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    A sentence to life without parole, however, means the prisoner has no prospect of release
    in his or her lifetime, regardless of his or her efforts at rehabilitation: virtually every person sentenced to LWOP dies
    in prison.

    What can possibly be the point of that?

    LWOP is appropriate for violent recidivists. Those people do exist. Give them a couple of chances, then on the third strike, throw the key away. I have no problem with this, and there are several points to it. Imprisonment has a number of points:
    – protecting society
    – retribution
    – deterrence
    – rehabilitation
    If you reject rehabilitation, and deterrence doesn't work on you, then society is, I think, perfectly justified in exacting retribution against you and protecting itself by locking you up until you die.

    But all that only applies if you're an egregious menace to society. If you're using or even selling drugs, that's not you. If you're burgling empty houses, that's not you. If you're stealing cars, that's not you. If you're doing those things, you're an inconvenience. But if you EVER raise your hand against another, then as far as I'm concerned hell yeah, rot in a cell, there are plenty more where you came from and nobody with any sense will miss you.

  10. johnthedrunkard says

    Is convict labor really profitable enough to explain this? I suspect not. A more sinister combination of privatized prison corporations, local governments selling out for ‘jobs’ in the prison industry, and perhaps the only unions with remaining political clout; I think these have more explanatory power in these instances.

  11. Decker says

    For-profit prisons are the principle reason for these horrible abuses. As with a profitable motel, one must keep the vacancy rates as low as possible.

    Also, incarcerating people and then having them work for a slave wage is…well…de-facto slavery, Isn’t it?

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