mandatory sentencing

How Nonviolent People Are Sentenced to Die in Prison Because of the War on Drugs

In the United States, one can be sentenced to life in prison for the following crimes:

  • Possessing a crack pipe
  • Possessing a bottle cap containing a trace amount of heroin (too minute to be weighed)
  • Having traces of cocaine in clothes pockets that were invisible to the naked eye but detected in lab tests
  • Having a single crack rock at home
  • Possessing 32 grams of marijuana (worth about $380 in California) with intent to distribute
  • Passing out several grams of LSD at a Grateful Dead show
  • Acting as a go-between in the sale of $10 worth of marijuana to an undercover cop
  • Selling a single crack rock
  • Having a stash of over-the-counter decongestant pills

These are not hypothetical. Every single one of these petty, nonviolent drug crimes have landed Americans in prison for life without parole.

Life in prison without a chance of parole is, short of execution, the harshest imaginable punishment. Life without parole (LWOP) is permanent removal from society with no chance of reentry, no hope of freedom. One would expect the American criminal justice system to condemn someone to die in prison only for the most serious offenses.

Yet across the country, thousands of people are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for nonviolent crimes such as those listed above. 

As of last year, 3,278 people were serving life in prison without parole for nonviolent crimes, according to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last week.

And to no one’s surprise, about 79 percent of the 3,278 prisoners serving LWOP were sentenced to die in prison for nonviolent drug crimes in the federal system.

How is this possible?

Mandatory sentencing laws that stem from America’s fervent, decades-long crusade against drugs.

The vast majority (83 percent) of life sentences examined by the ACLU were mandatory, meaning that the presiding judge had no choice but to sentence the defendant to a life behind bars. Mandatory sentences often result from repeat offender laws and draconian sentencing rules. Such federal standards for drug convictions are what land nonviolent criminals in prison for LWOP.

The prevalence of LWOP sentences for nonviolent offenses is a symptom of the relentless onslaught of more than four decades of the War on Drugs and “tough-on crime” policies, which drove the passage of unnecessarily harsh sentencing laws, including three-strikes provisions (which mandate certain sentences for a third felony conviction) and mandatory minimum sentences (which require judges to punish people convicted of certain crimes by at least a mandatory minimum number of years in prison). 

These inflexible, often extremely lengthy, “one-size-fits-all” sentencing laws prevent judges from tailoring punishment to the individual and the seriousness of the offense, barring them from considering factors such as the individual’s role in the offense or the likelihood that he or she will commit a subsequent crime.

Federal judges have long been outspoken in their opposition to mandatory sentencing laws. Judge Andre M. Davis of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote: “I say with certainty that mandatory minimums are unfair and unjust. These laws, created by an overzealous Congress decades ago … hinder judges from handing out fair and individualized sentences, while prosecutors are given unwarranted power to dictate sentences through charging decisions.”

How do petty drug crimes add up to life without parole?

Three federal drug offenses can result in LWOP, even if the offenses are relatively minor. For example, a federal conviction for possessing 50 grams of methamphetamine carries a mandatory life-without-parole sentence if the defendant has previously been convicted of two other felony drug offenses, which can be as minor as selling personal amounts of marijuana.

A handful of states have instituted mandatory LWOP sentences for certain drug offenses. In Alabama, a conviction for selling more than 56 grams of heroin results in a mandatory LWOP sentence. Similarly, a person convicted of selling two ounces of cocaine in Mississippi must receive LWOP. To put these sentences in perspective, the average time served for murder in the U.S. is 14 years.

While laws such as these were enacted in part out of concern about drug abuse and drug-related crime, the penalties they prescribe have not succeeded in curbing drug use or addiction rates, which have essentially remained flat for 40 years. Instead, the laws have contributed to mass incarceration in the U.S. 

The ACLU report contains the in-depth stories of 110 individual prisoners waiting to die behind bars for nonviolent offenses, along with more detailed information about mandatory sentencing.

Thanks to Mother Jones and the ACLU
Sentenced to a Slow Death: Life Without Parole For Non-Violent Crimes

If this were happening in any other country, Americans would be aghast. A sentence of life in prison, without the possibility of parole, for trying to sell $10 of marijuana to an undercover officer? For sharing LSD at a Grateful Dead concert? For siphoning gas from a truck? The punishment is so extreme, so irrational, so wildly disproportionate to the crime that it defies explanation.

And yet this is happening every day in federal and state courts across the United States. Judges, bound by mandatory sentencing laws that they openly denounce, are sending people away for the rest of their lives for committing nonviolent drug and property crimes. In nearly 20 percent of cases, it was the person’s first offense.

As of 2012, there were 3,278 prisoners serving sentences of life without parole for such crimes, according to an extensive and astonishing report issued Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union. And that number is conservative. It doesn’t include inmates serving sentences of, say, 350 years for a series of nonviolent drug sales. Nor does it include those in prison for crimes legally classified as “violent” even though they did not involve actual violence, like failing to report to a halfway house or trying to steal an unoccupied car.

The report relies on data from the federal prison system and nine states. Four out of five prisoners were sentenced for drug crimes like possessing a crack pipe or acting as a go-between in a street drug sale. Most of the rest were sentenced for property crimes like trying to cash a stolen check or shoplifting. In more than 83 percent of the cases, the judge had no choice: federal or state law mandated a sentence of life without parole, usually under a mandatory-minimum or habitual offender statute.

Over the past four decades, those laws have helped push the American prison population to more than two million people, and to the highest incarceration rate in the world. As in the rest of the penal system, the racial disparity is vast: in the federal courts, blacks are 20 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent crimes.

The report estimates that the cost of imprisoning just these 3,278 people for life instead of a more proportionate length of time is $1.78 billion.

It is difficult to find anyone who defends such sentencing. Even Burl Cain, the longtime warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which holds the most nonviolent lifers in the country, calls these sentences “ridiculous.” “Everybody forgets what corrections means. It means to correct deviant behavior,” Mr. Cain told the A.C.L.U. “If this person can go back and be a productive citizen and not commit crimes again,” he asked, why spend the money to keep him in prison? “I need to keep predators in these big old prisons, not dying old men.”

Several states are reforming sentencing laws to curb the mass incarceration binge. And Congress is considering at least two bipartisan bills that would partly restore to judges the power to issue appropriate sentences, unbound by mandatory minimums. These are positive steps, but they do not go far enough. As the report recommends, federal and state legislators should ban sentences of life without parole for nonviolent crimes, both for those already serving these sentences and in future cases. President Obama and state governors should also use executive clemency to commute existing sentences.

Just one-fifth of all countries allow a sentence of life without parole, and most of those reserve it for murder or repeated violent crimes. If the United States is to call itself a civilized nation, it must end this cruel and ineffective practice.
Minimum jail term for marijuana production 'cruel and unusual': judge
B.C. court is second to reject mandatory minimum for growing pot for purpose of trafficking

A B.C. Supreme Court judge says sending someone to jail for a minimum of half a year for growing more than six pot plants for the purpose of trafficking is cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Lauri Ann Fenlon’s ruling is the latest in a series of judicial findings to reject the former Conservative government’s legislation while citing a belief not all marijuana producers are criminals.

The law in question forces judges to hand a six-month mandatory minimum sentence to anyone growing between six and 200 marijuana plants for the purpose of trafficking.

But Fenlon said since the legal definition of trafficking can include giving pot away, the law might inadvertently incarcerate students or sick people for sharing home-grown pot.

“I note that a six month sentence is typical for a first time trafficker involved in a relatively sophisticated commercial dial-a-dope operation,” Fenlon wrote.

“Imposing that sentence on a 19-year-old student or a migraine sufferer who is growing six plants intending to share them with friends would, in my view, be abhorrent to most Canadians.”

Continue Reading.

For several years, a handful of lawmakers in Congress have tried to scale back tough sentencing laws that have bloated federal prisons and the cost of running them. But broad-based political will to change those laws remained elusive.

Now, with a push from President Obama, and perhaps even more significantly a nod from Speaker John A. Boehner, Congress seems poised to revise four decades of federal policy that greatly expanded the number of Americans — to roughly 750 per 100,000 — now incarcerated, by far the highest of any Western nation.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has long resisted changes to federal sentencing laws, said he expected to have a bipartisan bill ready before the August recess.

“It will be a bill that can have broad conservative support,” said Mr. Grassley, who as recently as this year praised the virtues of mandatory minimums on the Senate floor.

The ‘War On Drugs’ is a failure. The prison industrial complex and for-profit prisons have poisoned our society. Our courts and mandatory sentencing laws are focused on creating inmates, not solving or treating the problems of addiction.



Imprisoning a staggering number of our people is wrong. The way our nation does it is even worse. We must end mass incarceration, now.

If I’m walking down the street with a Black or Latino friend, my friend is way more likely to be stopped by the police, questioned, and even arrested. Even if we’re doing the exact same thing—he or she is more likely to be convicted and sent to jail.

Unless we recognize the racism and abuse of our criminal justice system and tackle the dehumanizing stereotypes that underlie it, our nation – and our economy – will never be as strong as it could be.

Please take a moment to watch the accompanying video, and please share it so others can understand what’s at stake for so many Americans.

Here are the facts:

Today, the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but has 25 percent of its prisoners, and we spend more than $80 billion each year on prisons.

The major culprit is the so-called War on Drugs. There were fewer than 200,000 Americans behind bars as recently as the mid-70’s. Then, a racially-tinged drug hysteria swept our nation, and we saw a wave of increasingly militant policing that targeted communities of color and poorer neighborhoods.

With “mandatory minimums” and “three strikes out” laws, the number of Americans behind bars soon ballooned to nearly 2.5 million today, despite widespread evidence that locking people up doesn’t make us safer.

Unconscious bias and cultural stereotypes lead to discriminatory enforcement of the laws – from who gets pulled over to where police conduct drug sweeps.

Even though Blacks, whites, and Latinos use drugs at similar rates, people with black and brown skin are more likely to be pulled over, searched, arrested, charged with a crime, convicted, and sent to jails and prisons where they can be subject to some of the worst human rights abuses.

As a result, black people incarcerated at a rate five times that of whites, and Latinos incarcerated at a rate double that of white Americans.

Even if you’ve “served your time,” you never escape the label.

A felony conviction can bar you from getting a student loan, putting a roof over your head, or even from voting. It might even disqualify you from getting a job which can make it impossible for people with felony convictions to pull themselves out of poverty. And many who end up in prison were living in chronic poverty to begin with.

All of this means a lot of potential human talent is going to waste. We’re spending a fortune locking people up who could fuel our economy and build strong communities, in some cases just to increase the profits of private prison corporations.

So what do we do?

First, enact smarter sentencing laws that end mandatory minimums and transform the way we treat people who enter the criminal justice system. Instead of prisons and jails, we need well-paying jobs, and to invest in proven and cost-effective alternatives to incarceration, like job training and mental health and drug treatment programs.

Second, stop the militarized policing and end discriminatory policing practices such as “stop and frisk” and “broken windows” that disproportionately target communities of color.

Third, stop building new jails, start closing some existing ones, and begin to invest in schools, public transit, and housing assistance or local jobs programs. States are spending more and more on prisons, while cutting funding for schools. That’s crazy.

Finally, “ban the box” – the box on job applications that asks whether you have ever been convicted of a felony on a job application. Already, dozens of states cities, and counties have passed bills requiring that employers consider what you can do in the future, not what you might have done in the past.

Instead of locking people up unjustly, and then locking them out of the economy for the rest of their lives, we need to stop wasting human talent and start opening doors of opportunity – to everyone.
Supreme Court of Canada to hear arguments against minimum drug sentences
The BC Civil Liberties Association is sending a lawyer to a Supreme Court of Canada case to argue against minimum drug sentences.

A lawyer representing the BC Civil Liberties Association says a case before Canada’s Supreme Court could signal the Trudeau government to put a critical eye on a law brought in under the Conservatives.

Amendments to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in 2012, through Bill C-10, brought in minimum one-year sentences for drug offenses.

The problem, according to the BCCLA, is this means people who are drug addicted, and trafficking small amounts to feed that addiction, are going to jail with the same minimum sentence as drug dealers aiming to make a profit.

Lawyer Matthew Nathanson says judges are “essentially handcuffed” to that one year sentence, despite unique circumstance.

“This law, by sending people to jail willy-nilly in a mandatory way, prevents trial judges from exercising their discretion in a reasoned way,” Nathanson says.

“Each case is different, each person is different, but the mischief behind this law is that it treats everybody the same when they are not the same and basically is sacrifices important principals, like rehabilitating offenders.”

On Wednesday, Nathenson will present arguments on behalf of the BCCLA in the case of R. v. Lloyd.

This case is on appeal from the B.C. Provincial Court.

Lloyd was convicted of possession for the purposes of trafficking under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Nathen expects the full nine members of the Supreme Court Bench to sit in on Wednesday. He says a ruling will likely not be made immediately.

This One Chart Perfectly Explains The Racism Of The US Justice System

This One Chart Perfectly Explains The Racism Of The US Justice System

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The recent (and ongoing) events in Ferguson have temporarily pulled back the curtain on the very different country black people live in compared to the one white people inhabit. Sure, we all callit “America” but it’s not the same “America” by a long shot. This is not the first time the curtain’s been pulled back and it certainly won’t be the last time because we’ve gotten very good at…

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People of color make up only 14% of drugs users in the United States, but 56% of people in U.S. state prisons for drug offenses. People of colour are 3 times as likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white people motorists, 2 times as likely to be arrested, and almost 4 times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with police. Once convicted, people of colour receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders of the same crime, are 21% more likely to receive mandatory-minimum sentences, and are 20% more likely to be sentenced to prison, non-violent drug offenders of color serve virtually the same amount of time in prison as white offenders do for a violent offense.


How Mandatory Sentencing Laws Are Sending Juveniles To Prison For Life

h/t The Nation

Harper fought the law and the law won

The Harper government and the Supreme Court of Canada do not mix, as the court’s new ruling against mandatory minimum sentences for certain gun crimes confirms. The blandest metaphor I can come up with is the two had a bad divorce, but of course they were never married in the first place. The court has principles, the government has ideology..

I’d go further. The Supreme Court is a panel of nine judges backed by a thick wall of case law – they are mandated to use it – and appearing before them is Stephen Harper, a man with rage issues but little respect for legal precedent.


The controversial sentencing of Kelly Lumadue

Florida, 2006:

A city sanitation worker found some videotapes while on the job one day and decided to take them home. They were found to contain homemade child pornography featuring Kelly Lumadue, 21 at the time, and a 5-year old boy.

The tapes were from 1996 and had been made by Lumadue’s husband Buddy Lumadue, who had died just before she threw the tapes out.

It was alleged that her husband, whom was much older and someone she had been with since she was a teenager, had forced her to participate in the acts against the child. She had many supporters of this.

Regardless of this, Lumadue’s charge carries mandatory sentencing in Florida and she received life in prison for her role in the abuse.

(Photo from Florida Department of Law Enforcement)
Canadian government plans to reduce use of mandatory minimum prison sentences
Changes will undo a major element of the Harper government’s tough-on-crime agenda by cutting mandatory minimum terms

The Trudeau government intends to cut widespread use of mandatory minimum sentences by giving judges back their discretion over punishment, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says.

The changes will undo a major element of the Harper government’s tough-on-crime agenda. Judges will be given the “appropriate discretion to be able to impose sentences, engage and understand – as they do better than anybody else – the individual that is before them,” the Justice Minister told The Globe and Mail in an interview as the Liberals near the end of their first year in power. “To base their decisions on the actual circumstances of the case before them and render judgment.”

She said new legislation on mandatory minimums is coming soon, “certainly in the early part of next year.” Last month, the government gave judges back the discretion they had lost in 2013 over the victim surcharge – a financial penalty from which judges once routinely exempted impoverished offenders, until it became mandatory.

A new federal law rolling back mandatory minimum terms could cut the number of Canadians incarcerated, which is high despite falling crime rates. It could also reduce the rates of indigenous people behind bars. One in four federal prisoners is indigenous, although aboriginal people accounted for just 4.3 per cent of Canadians in the 2011 census.

Continue Reading.
NT introduces new mandatory sentencing laws | Green Left Weekly

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the NT has the highest rate of incarceration in Australia. Eight hundred and twenty-six adults are imprisoned per every 100,000 people in the NT. The next highest is WA with only 267 per 100,000.

The NT also has the highest rate of Aboriginal incarceration. Making up a third of the overall NT population, Aboriginal people make up 83% of the prison population — more than the rate at which South Africa imprisoned its Black population during apartheid.

I spent most of this week in the Alice Springs Law Courts. I learnt that mandatory sentencing is really, really stupid.

Michael Giles, an active duty serviceman, was given a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for defending himself in the state of Florida. Michael was attacked from behind and punched to the ground in a parking lot. Fearing for his life, he fired two shots from his legally owned firearm in an attempt to defend himself. His attacker was struck in the leg, but not seriously injured.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums