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The Rampant Growth of Life Without Parole

America's crowded prisons are seeing a larger number of lifers cluttering their halls and cafeterias, according to a new report from an organization opposed to life-without-parole sentences.
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A new study by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform, notes that one out of every 11 prisoners in state and federal lockups is serving a life sentence, and of those, nearly one-third, more than 41,000 convicts, have been sentenced to life without parole. The report notes that life without parole judgments have tripled since 1992, and nearly two-thirds of prisoners serving these sentences are ethnic and racial minorities.

As noted in my recent piece — "Should Minors Ever Face Life Without Parole?" — the U.S. already has more than 1,700 juveniles serving life without parole. The U.S., according to The Sentencing Project report, "No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences In America," is the only country that hands out such judgments. The organization, as you might expect, opposes life without parole.

Major reasons for these harsh verdicts include "three strikes laws and other overly punitive sentences," says The Sentencing Project's Ashley Nellis. "California has 24 percent of all the nation's lifers, and they have this excessively punitive three strikes law in place. Also, the abandonment of parole has had a huge impact, as has the limiting of judicial discretion in sentencing and the expansion of prosecutorial discretion."

The excessive number of life sentences is a major contributing factor to prison overcrowding, and as prisoners age, they can become an expensive state burden. Geriatric cons, Nellis says, "are a more difficult population to manage; they have more health care requirements. As states deal with their budget crises, they need to look at these sentences and revisit whether these are really the biggest threats to public safety."

There may be some light on the horizon. The constitutionality of life without parole punishments for juveniles is being challenged in two cases — Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida — that will be heard by the Supreme Court during its fall term.

And the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, which has led to longer jail terms, especially for minorities, is under review by the Obama administration and has even attracted the support of some conservative legislators — Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions' recent malapropism that he and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, were "going to do that crack cocaine thing," actually spoke to his desire to hold hearings on the crack-powder disparity.

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