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.

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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How Mandatory Sentencing Laws Are Sending Juveniles To Prison For Life

h/t The Nation

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)
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.
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.
Mandatory Sentencing to Clog Judicial System

The Queensland Law Society has spoken out, in a media release on Monday, to the proposed introduction of Mandatory Sentencing in Queensland. The QLS has stated that it would cost Queensland taxpayers up to $70,000 per prisoner per year. This cost is additional when considering the implications of mandatory sentencing on Judges, Prosecutors and juries as more trials and slower guilty pleas would result.