By Charlene Muhammad CHARLENEM
One in five incarcerated Blacks are serving life or virtual life sentences in America’s prisons, according to a recent report by The Sentencing Project.
According to the report, “Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences,” America’s epic incarceration rates reached new heights last year. On a national average, at least one of every seven people in prison were serving a life or virtual life sentence.
The report further indicates that in 2016, there were a record 206,268 people serving life with parole, life without parole, or virtual life sentences (meaning people are unlikely to survive before serving their minimum terms).
In addition, 80 percent of children serving life were youth of color. And two-thirds or more inmates in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, and South Carolina, are Black, according to the report. Researchers say the numbers reflect the stark racial disparity in the United States’ prison population.
“What’s going on is the effects of mass incarceration go across offense, and so African Americans are more likely to be incarcerated for low level, and also high level offenses,” said report author Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., senior research analyst for The Sentencing Project.
Dr. Nellis explained some of that is related to the ways Blacks are more likely to enter the system earlier on in their lives, which trigger habitual offender laws more quickly for them than for Whites.
Founded in 1986, The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration, notes the group’s website.
California ranked highest in the country with 40,691 inmates serving life with parole, without possibility of parole, and virtual life last year. Of those, Blacks were 33.3 percent, Whites 20.8 percent, and Hispanics 37.2 percent, according to the report.
Following with the most inmates serving some form of life were Louisiana (11,238), New York (9,889), Alabama (6,104), Maryland (4,158), Nevada (3,237), Massachusetts (2,038), and Utah (2,004).
Dr. Nellis argued, people who are serving life sentences are currently 14 percent of all prisoners, and the most expensive prisoners, yet there is no evidence that they are the most dangerous.
The numbers stem from America’s long period of tough on crime laws and policies (such as mandatory minimums, and the elimination outright of parole systems), Dr. Nellis said. She added, many of those are still in place, despite good evidence and a lot of support for repealing and reforming them.
“All of those have kept people in prison for longer and given more people life sentences. There’s also been a broadening of the use of life sentences for new crimes,” Dr. Nellis told The Final Call.
Originally, life was really reserved for homicide, 1st degree homicide, and sometimes 2nd degree homicide, she said. Now, it’s commonly used across many different violent and non-violent crimes.
Further, Dr. Nellis found that there are more than 7,000 parole-eligible life-sentenced prisoners whose crimes occurred before age 18. It’s not as if they’re being held beyond their parole date, but they become parole-eligible sometime during their sentence, she explained.
Still, they have become subject to parole practices and policies that have become very political in nature, so they’re unlikely to get out in any reasonable amount of time, she said.
The study also found that a lot of life sentences with parole have really become life without parole. For instance, in states like Georgia and Tennessee, inmates must sometimes wait 30 and 60 years, respectively, before their first parole hearing.
“America is definitely not headed toward reducing mass incarceration, unless we deal with these long term and life sentences,” said Dr. Nellis.
She said there have been some success with national and state level conversations about putting a cap on the country’s prison boom. There’s been a nearly five percent decline in the prison population since 2010, and that’s going in the right direction, Dr. Nellis said. But, she feels a lot of that is sort of toying around the edges.
“A lot of the reforms that we see in terms of state level criminal justice reforms that are aimed at tackling mass incarceration either pointedly exclude lifers from the discussion, or just omit them from the conversation altogether,” Dr. Nellis said.
The report recommends eliminating life without parole and dramatically scale back other life sentences to curb the problem.
It also recommends improving the process of parole by moving eligible life sentenced prisoners through the system, releasing those who show they are qualified for freedom, and holding back those who require more time in prison before they are ready.
Dr. Nellis told The Final Call a striking observation as she worked on the issue for a number of years is continuing to see the upward climb without a lot of comment and notice or acknowledgment from the states in terms of trying to address it.
“I’m hoping this report will have an impact in that way and force or encourage states to really look at their entire correctional population and see if there are other reasonable segments of the prisoners that can get a second look, and from our view, those are people serving life sentences,” Dr. Nellis said.