Locked Away: Study finds record number of lifers in prison, overwhelming racial disparities

cellblock.jpgA new report by the Sentencing Project finds that a record number of prisoners are serving life sentences.
According to the report, more than 140,000 individuals are now serving life sentences in state and federal prisons, some 6,800 of whom were juveniles at the time of the crime. In addition, 29% of persons serving a life sentence have no possibility of parole. 

The number of life sentences has more than quadrupled in the past 25 years, according to the report. During that period the nation's prison population has also quadrupled, with the South accounting for nearly half of that increase. Tough-on-crime, draconian sentencing policies, including mandatory minimum sentences and "truth in sentencing" laws, as well as cutbacks in parole releases and greater restrictions in parole, have accounted for much of the explosion in prison populations and the expanded length of time that people spend in prison. 

As the report underscores, these longer sentencing policies didn't only apply to people convicted of violent offenses, but also for people identified as habitual offenders and those convicted of certain drug offenses. 

As the Miami Herald reported
Nearly two decades ago, Florida enacted mandatory minimum sentencing laws, such as "10-20-Life'" and "three strikes,'" that increased the number of life felons in the nation's third-largest prison system and sharply reduced inmates' ability to win early release or parole. 

Florida has also been in the news recently because of the two cases under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, where juveniles received life without parole sentences. 

Other findings from the report:
  • In five states -- Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and New York -- at least 1 in 6 prisoners is serving a life sentence.
  • Five states -- California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania -- each have more than 3,000 people serving life without parole.
  • In six states -- Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota -- and the federal government, all life sentences are imposed without the possibility of parole.
  • The dramatic growth in life sentences is not primarily a result of higher crime rates, but of policy changes that have imposed harsher punishments and restricted parole consideration.
The report details the high rates of racial and ethnic disparities in who receives life sentences: 66% of all persons sentenced to life are non-white, and 77% of juveniles serving life sentences are non-white. Nationally, blacks comprise nearly half the prison population receiving a life sentence. In Alabama, 102 of the 121 persons serving life, or 84.3 percent, are black. In Louisiana, 73.3 percent of the prisoners serving life without parole are black.  

Juveniles also are increasingly being sentenced to life, and the racial disparity in that population is overwhelming. In Alabama, 75 of 89 juveniles serving live sentences without parole are black. In South Carolina, 42 of the 55 youth in adult prisons serving life sentences are black. In the federal system, 28 of the 52 youth serving life sentences are black. 

Louisiana leads the nation in terms of the percent of its prison population serving life without parole, at 10.9 percent. In fact, it was in Louisiana that the practice first took off. Burk Foster, a criminal justice professor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan and an expert on the Louisiana penitentiary system, told the New York Times, the expansion of life sentences started at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the nation's largest maximum penitentiary, in the early 1970s, when most people sentenced to life terms were paroled after they had been deemed fit to re-enter society:
"Angola was a prototype of a lifer's prison," said Professor Foster. "In 1973, Louisiana changed its life sentencing law so that lifers would no longer be parole eligible, and they applied that law more broadly over time to include murder, rape, kidnapping, distribution of narcotics and habitual offenders." 

Professor Foster said sentencing more prisoners to life sentences was an abandonment of the "corrective" function of prisons.

"Rehabilitation is not an issue at Angola," he said. "They're just practicing lifetime isolation and incapacitation."

The Sentencing Project's report calls for the elimination of sentences of life without parole, and restoring discretion to parole boards to determine suitability for release.