Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union examines one of the fastest growing populations in the prison system: people sentenced to life without parole (LWOP)--and nonviolent offenders sentenced to LWOP more specifically.  Since 1992, the increase in their numbers is nearly double the rise in the total prison population and more than double the rise in people serving parole-eligible life sentences.  LWOP was rarely used before the 1970s, but became prominent in the wake of Furman v. Georgia (1972) that temporarily abolished the death penalty.  Today, almost 50,000 people--one in 30 prisoners--are serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, up from 12,453 in 1992.

The ACLU's report  focuses on the federal prison system and nine states and is based on data from the United States Sentencing Commission, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and state Departments of Corrections, as well as telephone interviews conducted by the ACLU with prisoners, their lawyers, and family members; correspondence with prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses; a survey of 355 prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses; and media and court records searches.

The report shows that as of 2012:

  • There were 3,278 prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent drug and property crimes in the federal system and in nine states that provided such statistics (there may well be more such prisoners in other states). 
  • About 79 percent of these 3,278 prisoners are serving LWOP for nonviolent drug crimes. 
  • Nearly two-thirds of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses nationwide are in the federal system; of these, 96 percent are serving LWOP for drug crimes. 
  • More than 18 percent of federal prisoners surveyed by the ACLU are serving LWOP for their first offenses. 
  • Of the states that sentence nonviolent offenders to LWOP, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Oklahoma have the highest numbers of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent crimes, largely due to three-strikes and other kinds of habitual offender laws that mandate an LWOP sentence for the commission of a nonviolent crime. 
  • The overwhelming majority (83.4 percent) of the LWOP sentences for nonviolent crimes surveyed by the ACLU were mandatory. In these cases, the sentencing judges had no choice in sentencing due to laws requiring mandatory minimum periods of imprisonment, habitual offender laws, statutory penalty enhancements, or other sentencing rules that mandated LWOP.
  • There is a staggering racial disparity in LWOP sentencing for nonviolent offenses: the ACLU estimates that nationwide, 65.4 percent of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses are Black, 17.8 percent are white, and 15.7 percent are Latino.
  • The total fiscal cost-savings to taxpayers if state and federal sentencing statutes were revised to eliminate nonviolent offenses for eligibility for LWOP sentences would be at least $1.784 billion.

Read more: resources:
Prisoners per Capita (
Bureau of Justice Dynamic Data Tools (
CrimeStat III Crime Mapping Tool (
Frederique Laubepin

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