A shocking new study by the American Civil Liberties Union has found that more than 3,200 people nationwide are serving life terms without parole for nonviolent offenses. Of those prisoners, 80 percent are behind bars for drug-related convictions. Sixty-five percent are African-American, 18 percent are white, and 16 percent are Latino — evidence of what the ACLU calls "extreme racial disparities." The crimes that led to life sentences include stealing gas from a truck, shoplifting, possessing a crack pipe, facilitating a $10 sale of marijuana, and attempting to cash a stolen check. We speak with Jennifer Turner, human rights researcher and author of the new ACLU report, "A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses."
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A shocking new study by the American Civil Liberties Union has found that more than 3,200 people nationwide are serving life terms without parole for nonviolent offenses. Of those prisoners, 80 percent are behind bars for drug-related crimes. Sixty-five percent are African-American, 18 percent are white, and 16 percent are Latino—evidence of what the ACLU calls "extreme racial disparities." The crimes that led to life sentences include stealing gas from a truck, shoplifting, possessing a crack pipe, facilitating a $10 sale of marijuana, and attempting to cash a stolen check.
AMY GOODMAN: Sixty-three percent of those serving life without parole for these nonviolent offenses are in federal prisons. Most were sentenced under mandatory minimum laws. The ACLU says keeping nonviolent offenders behind bars for life is costing taxpayers an additional $1.8 billion. In a minute, we’ll be joined by the author of the study. But first, this is a clip from a video that features family members of some of the more than 600 prisoners it profiles.
SARLOWER SURRY: Everything he did was to hurt himself, not others. And it went from—from one-year sentence to two-year sentence to natural life.
CASHAWNA TILMAN: My dad will never get out for something so little? Natural life.
LORETTA LUMAR: For stealing a $150 jacket. And that $150 jacket got him life in prison.
SARLOWER SURRY: Here in Louisiana, they use that habitual offender law: Three strikes, you automatically get natural life.
CATHERINE MATTHEWS: It’s like giving him a death sentence, because this is no life—no life for a man with his children or his parents or anybody else, once they’re in there.
BURL CAIN: Judge should have the discretion not to give a life sentence. I mean, that’s extreme. You tell that to anybody, they’ll say, "Ah, nah-uh, that’s a little bit too much." That almost gets to be the point that that’s not what the forefathers envisioned, even with the Constitution. That’s extreme. That’s cruel and unusual punishment, to me.
CASHAWNA TILMAN: He’s a good person, my dad. I mean, he’s always—like I said, he’s always been there for me and my sister and brother. He’s always done his best, until he started abusing the drugs.
CATHERINE MATTHEWS: And a lot of times with Patrick, with the drugs, it came down to not being able to find work.
SARLOWER SURRY: Life sentence is no way to deal with a drug addiction.
EISIBE SNEED: My son wasn’t a menace to society.
DELOICE LEWIS: He would give his shirt off his back.
CATHERINE MATTHEWS: And being so tenderhearted in a place like that, it just doesn’t fit. It’s changed him that way, because I notice he is getting a little colder. I find that he’s not believing and he’s not keeping his faith as much. He’s not—like, he’s like, "I’m about ready to give up on this."
WILLIE COMBS: Oh, it’s been hard. I go down there and see him. I can’t hardly stand to leave him, but I know I have to go. It be hard. It be hard.
CATHERINE MATTHEWS: To tell him what I ate for Thanksgiving, and he couldn’t eat it, you know, it’s hard. It’s little things like that.
DELOICE LEWIS: And my birthday coming up, and those are days I break.
BURL CAIN: But if this person can go back and be a productive citizen and not commit crimes again, these nonviolent crimes, then why are we keeping him here, spending all this money? Because maybe I’ve done my job, so he should have a parole hearing.
SARLOWER SURRY: There’s too many families that’s suffering out here.
LORETTA LUMAR: Give him a second chance. He’s 54 years old now.
WILLIE COMBS: I’m looking for things to change.
CATHERINE MATTHEWS: Because these boys are just getting wasted away in these prisons for no reason.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from a video that accompanies the ACLU’s new report, "A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses." For more, we’re joined by its author, Jennifer Turner, human rights researcher with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Welcome to Democracy Now! I mean, it is just astounding. A man—the story we just heard; another story, a man walks out of a store with a coat slung over his shoulder, $159, gets life in prison without parole.
JENNIFER TURNER: Absolutely. These sentences are grotesquely out of proportion of the crimes that they’re seeking to punish. And we found that 3,278 people are serving life without the possibility of parole for nonviolent crimes, but these numbers actually underrepresent the true state of extreme sentencing in this country. Those numbers don’t account for those who will die in prison because of sentences such as 350 years for a drug sale. It also doesn’t account for the many millions of lives ruined by excessive sentencing in this country, as well.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And especially the impact of federal mandatory minimum sentencings, could you talk about that and the efforts to try to roll back some of those—some of those laws?
JENNIFER TURNER: Yeah, what we found was that over 80 percent of these sentences were mandatory, both in the federal system and in the states. They’re the direct consequence of laws passed over the 40-year war on drugs and tough-on-crime policies that included mandatory minimum sentencing laws, habitual offender laws in the states.
And they tie judges’ hands. And in case after case after case that I reviewed, the judge said from the bench—outraged, would say, "I oppose this sentence as a citizen, as a taxpayer, as a judge. I disagree with the sentence in this case, but my hands are tied." And one judge said, when sentencing one man to life without parole for selling tiny quantities of crack over a period of just a couple of weeks, he said, "This is a travesty. It’s just silly. But I have no choice."
AMY GOODMAN: What if a judge said no?
JENNIFER TURNER: The judges can’t say no. In fact, I looked at cases where the judges tried to say no, where the judge tried to find a legal loophole, where prosecutors appealed, repeatedly. One man was sentenced to zero time in prison by a Louisiana judge for threatening a cop while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser. He was drunk, threatened him, was sentenced initially to no time. The prosecutor appealed; the sentence increased to 10 years. Prosecutor appealed again. On the third appeal, it was increased to life without parole as a mandatory sentence because of his priors dating back as much as 20 years earlier.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another case. Another person profiled in your report, in the ACLU report, is Sharanda Jones. She was sentenced to life for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine when she was a 32-year-old mother, with a nine-year-old daughter—no prior arrests. No drugs were found on her, but her supposed co-conspirators testified against her in exchange for reduced sentences. In this clip from the film, The War on Drugs, she talks about being separated from her daughter.
SHARANDA JONES: My sister bring her to visit. And every time she come, it’s hard. I see her like once a month. And to see her grow from a little bitty baby to almost a grown woman now, it’s just like, God, my dream is to just show up at her school. I mean, I know they gave me life, but I can’t imagine not being at her graduation, her high school graduation. I just can’t imagine me not being there.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharanda Jones. Jennifer, tell us more about her case.
JENNIFER TURNER: Well, Sharanda was caught up in a massive drug sweep in a majority white town in Texas. Over a hundred people were arrested, all of whom were black. Chuck Norris participated in some of the arrests. Sharanda had no information to trade for a lenient—a more lenient sentence. And the judge was required to sentence her to life without parole, objected to the sentence, but he had not choice.
AMY GOODMAN: So, they had nothing on her, but—
JENNIFER TURNER: They had nothing but one wiretap. What happened was, a couple had been arrested on drug charges and began cooperating with the feds as confidential informants and, from there, started implicating others in the community. They called Sharanda and said, "Hey, do you know where we can get some drugs?" The wiretap caught Sharanda saying, "Let me see what I can do." That was the extent of the evidence against her, with the exception of testimony from these confidential informants and other co-conspirators. They never found any drugs on her. There were no even video surveillance of her with drugs. But she was sentenced to life without parole.
A single mother. Her daughter Clenesha has been separated her for many, many, many years. And Sharanda maintains a very close relationship with her daughter. She carefully apportions the 300 minutes she’s allowed to use per month for non-legal calls to call her daughter 10 minutes each day. When I talk to Sharanda on the phone, she’s like, "I’ve got to go! I can’t use up my minutes; I need to speak with my daughter."
And Sharanda, unfortunately, has no relief available. Her sentence is final, like those of everyone else we were profiling. They have really no chance of relief unless President Obama, in Sharanda’s case, because it’s a federal case, or, in the states, where the governors use their executive clemency powers to reduce their sentence.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about the racial disparities that your report highlights? They’re really amazing. I mean, everyone knows that African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately incarcerated, but in terms of these life-without-parole sentences, the amazing percentage of African Americans, specifically, in states like Louisiana, 91 percent are African-American.
JENNIFER TURNER: The racial disparities are staggering. Obviously, as you said, that blacks are treated disparately throughout the criminal justice system, but what we found was that in life-without-parole sentencing for nonviolent crimes, those disparities are even more marked. Nationwide, 65 percent of people serving these sentences for nonviolent crimes are black; 18 percent are white. In the federal system, blacks are 20 times more likely to be sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent crime. In some states it’s even higher. In Louisiana, where 91 percent of the people serving these sentences are black, they’re 23 times more likely. In the federal system, Latinos are five times more likely to be sentenced to life for nonviolent crime than whites.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the avenue for this to be changed is legislation?
JENNIFER TURNER: There are very clear avenues for change. These sentences are really symptomatic of the larger problem of excessive sentencing in this country. Many, many, many more thousands of people are serving excessive sentences that are disproportionate to their crimes. And they’re all the result of the 40-year war on drugs and tough-on-crime policies, such as mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws. We simply need to repeal the laws that led to these sentences. And with growing national consensus across both sides of the political aisle that mandatory minimum sentences, for instance, are a travesty of justice, this is quite possible. There have been two bipartisan bills introduced in Congress that would somewhat reduce the reach of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
But also, as I mentioned before, the—President Obama, who has the worst pardon record of any modern president—he has pardoned five turkeys and commuted the sentence of only one prisoner—he does have the power and authority to review the sentences of the over 2,000 people like Sharanda serving life without parole for a nonviolent crime, and he can reduce their sentence. Same with state governors.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And as you note, even if there were changes in the law, these more than 3,000 people that have already been sentenced would not necessarily be affected. It would have to take some executive action by governors or by the president to get some of them—to assure they don’t die in prison, essentially.
JENNIFER TURNER: Absolutely. Some sentencing reforms have been retroactive, and certainly future sentencing reforms could be retroactive, and that’s what we’re calling for. But for many of these people, their only chance at release is some form of clemency. And we have a petition online on our website where you can all take action to call on President Obama to review these sentences and impose a fairer and smarter sentence for these prisoners.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, just to shift gears a bit, about a year ago you came out with a report, "Island of Impunity: Puerto Rico’s Outlaw Police Force." Explain what’s happening now.
JENNIFER TURNER: Absolutely. In Puerto Rico, I looked at Puerto Rico Police Department because it’s the second largest in the country, second only to NYPD, and because its policing practices are really off the map. We found that the police force uses lethal force at a rate much higher than other police departments—three times the per capita rate of police shootings by the NYPD, for instance; uses excessive force against protesters; brutal beatings of low-income and black Puerto Ricans and Dominican immigrants.
And we sued the police department, called on the Department of Justice to investigate the police department. And just in August, the department was entered into a consent decree with the Justice Department. And two weeks ago, a monitor was appointed to oversee the reform effort and to ensure that the police department actually institutes the reforms that they’ve promised to institute. One week ago, a top New York Police Department officer was appointed superintendent of the police force to start this reform process.
So it’s really the very beginning stages, and we will be watching closely to make sure the police department does follow through on its promise for reforms, which are truly an overhaul of the police force, which is required. The police force is so dysfunctional that it needs to be overhauled at all levels, from basic policies put in place to holding cops accountable when they kill or hurt people, as well as changing the reporting mechanisms. Really, everything has to be reformed in that police department.
AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Turner, we want to thank you very much for being with us, human rights researcher with the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote the ACLU’s new report, "A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses," also authored the report, "Island of Impunity: Puerto Rico’s Outlaw Police Force." We’ll link to both of them at democracynow.org. When we come back, Calle 13 joins us here in studio. Stay with us.