Just when you think you've heard everything about America's mass incarceration epidemic, out comes the ACLU with a new angle: Over 3,000 people here in the Land of the Free are locked up for life, with no chance of parole, for crimes in which no one was hurt.
The U.S. now incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world.
The ACLU found 3,278 inmates serving life without parole in state and federal prisons for non-violent offenses, mostly drugs and theft. There are almost certainly more, but most states didn't provide data to the report's authors. Of those 3,278, 65 percent are black, 18 percent are white, and 16 percent are Latino—"evidence of extreme racial disparities," the report underlines. It will cost taxpayers an estimated $1.8 billion to keep those folks locked up. The full report features profiles of dozens of these prisoners, including the poor schmuck doing life for snaffling some tools from a tool shed.
Why would judges deal out such extraordinary punishments for such picayune offenses? Mainly because they have no choice. In most cases, these lifers' terms were mandated by minimum sentencing and "Three Strikes You're Out"-type laws passed during the hysteria over crack and youth gangs in the 1980s, part of a wave of tough-on-crime legislation that has quadrupled America's prison population to a record-shattering two million-plus inmates. The U.S., as a result, now incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world.
Life without parole is also a distinctly American punishment. Very few other countries use it. And we are almost the only nation that locks up juvenile offenders for life, a punishment we've imposed on thousands of teenagers. All told, nearly 50,000 Americans will stay behind bars until they die.