Nonviolent offenders are being locked into life sentences for minor drug crimes.
By Matt Krupnick
When Deadhead Timothy Tyler sent five grams of LSD to a friend, little did he know he was setting himself up to die behind bars.
The vegan loved to follow the Grateful Dead around the country, selling fried dough at concerts—and he had already been arrested twice for selling small amounts of acid and marijuana in 1991.
Tyler, sentenced in 1994 to life without parole at age 24, is one of 110 examples cited in an American Civil Liberties Union report on nonviolent offenders spending life in prison. Most are serving time for drug offenses, and, of 646 sentences reviewed by the ACLU, 83 percent had been imprisoned without parole for nonviolent crimes.
But a bipartisan tide is rising against life without parole, particularly those sentences handed down as a result of laws requiring such judgments—regardless of the crime’s severity.
“People now understand the excess and cost and harm associated with this,” said Vanita Gupta, the ACLU’s deputy legal director and the report’s editor. “Every jurisdiction in the country that has these laws has a responsibility to ask, ‘Who are we really protecting?’”
At least 3,278 inmates are serving life without parole in federal prisons in the nine states that provide statistics, the ACLU reported. The cost to taxpayers: nearly $1.8 billion.
Louisiana, with some of the nation’s harshest sentencing laws, houses 429 nonviolent life-without-parole prisoners—tops in the country. Groups at both ends of the ideological spectrum have asked Louisiana to change its laws to allow discretion in such cases rather than force life sentences for crimes as minor as possession of a single crack rock.
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