Prison Sentences: A Living Death

Posted: December 8, 2013 in News and politics

Walter Sergio Gray was 27 years old when he sold three pieces of crack cocaine in 1990 to an undercover police officer in Ocala. He will die behind bars for the crime. Gray was sentenced to life in prison without parole for selling cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school — even though the building hadn’t been used as a school for at least four years.

His case is among those highlighted in the American Civil Liberties Union’s new report, “A Living Death.” The report found that, as of last year, there were 3,278 prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes in the federal system, along with Florida and eight other states that provided statistics.

Nearly 80 percent of the sentences were for drug crimes. The rest were for property crimes as minor as shoplifting three belts, siphoning fuel from an 18-wheeler and stealing a woman’s bagged lunch from her parked car.

The ACLU’s report provides a window into why the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 743 prisoners per 100,000 adults in the population.

The United States is among just 20 percent of countries that have life-without-parole sentences. Even China and Pakistan allow a review of life sentences after 25 years.

The United States has gone in the opposite direction, with life-without-parole sentences quadrupling over the past two decades.

COSTLY CONFINEMENT

This comes at a huge social and economic cost. The ACLU estimates that taxpayers would save at least $1.784 billion if state and federal sentencing guidelines were revised to eliminate life without parole sentences for nonviolent offenses.

Gray and many others serving life are no saints. He was sentenced under Florida’s habitual-offender law because of previous convictions for selling or purchasing cocaine, and unarmed robbery. But a sentence to die behind bars should be reserved for the most heinous crimes.

Our jails are instead being filled with offenders committing drug crimes as insignificant as acting as a go-between in the sale of $10 of marijuana to an undercover officer and possessing a bottle cap with trace amounts of heroin, two examples cited in the ACLU report.

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