A new report by The Sentencing Project, Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences, finds a record 206,268 people serving life with parole, life without parole, or virtual life sentences in 2016—one of every seven people in prison.
The report, authored by senior research analyst Ashley Nellis, provides a comprehensive analysis of individuals serving life sentences, including the first-ever census of those serving “virtual life” sentences of 50 years or more. Extreme prison sentences are a nationwide phenomenon, but in eight states — Alabama, California, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, and Utah — at least one of every five prisoners is serving a form of life in prison.
Racial disparity in the prison population is also a hallmark of mass incarceration and the composition of the population serving life reflects this stark disproportionality. Indeed, one in five African Americans in prison is serving a life or virtual life sentence. In Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, and South Carolina, two-thirds or more are African American.
The report concludes with recommendations to address the outsized life and virtual life population:
- Eliminate life without parole and dramatically scale back other life sentences;
- Improve the process of parole;
- Increase the use of clemency and authorize other mechanisms to adjust overly punitive sentences.
We hope you will help us spread the report’s eye-opening findings about the United States’ historic incarceration levels and advocate for change.
HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — One 16-year-old drove drunk, ran a red light and crashed into a pregnant woman’s car, killing her and her unborn child. Another drunken teenager rammed a pickup truck into a crowd of people assisting a stranded driver, killing four.
Jaime Arellano went to prison. Ethan Couch went free.
The stories of the two Texas teens illustrate how prosecutors’ decisions in similar cases can lead to wildly different outcomes. The poor immigrant from Mexico has been behind bars for almost a decade. The white kid with rich parents got 10 years of probation.
The crash fatally injured the stranded motorist, a youth minister who stopped to help her and a mother and daughter who came out of their nearby home.
But prosecutors in Fort Worth said they didn’t ask to have his case moved to the adult system because they thought the judge would refuse. Instead, he stayed in juvenile court and became infamous for his psychologist’s assertion that his wealthy parents coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility the psychologist called “affluenza.”
Arellano was charged with intoxication manslaughter and intoxication assault, the same counts against Couch. But prosecutors in Arellano’s case moved quickly after his June 2007 crash to send him to adult court. Arellano took a plea deal and got 20 years in prison, where he remains today.
Sending Arellano’s case to the adult system opened the door to the kind of punishment many say Couch should have received from the beginning.
Matt Bingham, the Smith County district attorney and head of the office that prosecuted Arellano, declined to comment on Couch’s case but said he considered adult prison to be a fair option for any teenager who has killed someone.
Juveniles don’t always commit “what people think of as juvenile crimes,” Bingham said. “There is an appropriate punishment for what they have done. And the fact that they’re 16 years of age doesn’t negate that.”
Arellano could never have argued he had “affluenza.”
Arellano and his family crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally two years before the crash and settled in East Texas. He spoke little English and had little knowledge of the court system. Five months before the crash, he dropped out of high school.
Now 24, he spoke to The Associated Press about his case from behind a narrow glass partition at a Texas prison. Wearing a white inmate uniform, he spoke in soft, accented English that he said he learned while in prison.
Arellano had his first beer at 15 and had driven drunk a few times before. His parents tried to stop him from driving under the influence, but he said he wouldn’t listen.
“They talked to me way too many times,” he said. “But I just didn’t want to hear it.”
On the night of June 23, 2007, Arellano was driving an SUV through Tyler, about 100 miles east of Dallas, on his way to a party. He had an open beer and several more in a cooler.
Witnesses saw him swerve through the intersection and slam into a Ford Mustang making a left turn ahead, according to police reports.
Driving the Mustang was Martha Mondragon, a 31-year-old woman who was nine months’ pregnant. Mondragon and the child she was carrying were killed. Her 6-year-old daughter flew out of her booster seat and through a car window. She was hospitalized and survived.
Prosecutors quickly sought to have Arellano’s case moved to adult court, and a judge agreed.
At that point, Arellano faced two choices: a plea deal with the promise of 20 years in prison and possible parole after a decade, or a jury trial in one of the most conservative regions of the United States and the risk of 50 years in prison. He took the plea.
While he once thought he might have gotten probation if he were white, Arellano said he doesn’t feel that way today.
“I know it was serious,” he said. “It had to happen this way so I could better myself, so I could think better.”
Arellano becomes eligible for parole next year. Once released, he expects to be deported to Mexico, where he hopes to work on a ranch.
Couch faces possible detention for violating his probation when he returns to court on Feb. 19. Depending on the judge’s ruling, he could get three months in jail and adult probation, which if violated could land him in prison for up to 40 years.
In the juvenile system, intoxication manslaughter cases in Texas over the last decade were just as likely to result in probation as they are detention, according to figures from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. Juvenile justice experts say the state’s juvenile system places more weight on rehabilitation than the adult system, where punishments are tougher.
Since 2005, Texas has prosecuted 38 juveniles for intoxication manslaughter or intoxication assault. Only three were sent to the adult system, and half of all cases resulted in probation of some kind.
Those numbers do not include juveniles who commit similar offenses but might be charged with different crimes or cases not reported by local authorities to the state.
Once juveniles are in detention, it’s more likely than not that they will go free when they turn 19. Only 33 percent of all juvenile offenders are sent to adult prison, according to a study of juvenile sentencing conducted by the University of North Texas professor Chad Trulson.
Trulson said a probation sentence for killing four people might seem “absurd” to the average person.
But in the juvenile system, he said, that type of sentence for intoxication manslaughter and potentially more serious offenses “is probably more typical than we would think.”
Follow Nomaan Merchant on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nomaanmerchant .
This story has been corrected to show that Mondragon was 31, not 33.
From Judy Gates of Marblehead
We can write letters, go to meetings, contribute money, but there’s no real substitute for face-to-face encounters. That was evident to me again when I joined Susan Tordella of EMIT and two other activists at the State House last Thursday to visit members of our legislature in support of Bail Reform and ending Mandatory Minimum sentencing for drug crimes. These are two pieces of legislation being considered by our state legislators, and are co-sponsored by many members of the bi-partisan Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform Caucus.
Upon arriving at a legislator’s office, we asked to meet with an aide and who in the office had read “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. EMIT gave a copy of to all legislators last year. I was pleased that almost everyone was familiar with the book and that often more than one in the office had read it or were in the process of reading it.
The good news is that everywhere we went, searching out offices even in obscure corners of the State House, we found people willing to listen, who appreciated our fact-sheets on the two bills, and many asked questions.
As Susan says, it is essential to “Inform to Reform.” As someone deeply committed to reform of our broken criminal justice system, I am encouraged by the rising level of concern across our country and the increased media coverage on the need for criminal justice reform.
The bottom line is that we need to make our voices heard and one of the best ways is to make an appointment with your state rep or senator, and/or walk into a legislator’s office and speak face-to-face to an aide or legislator. Building relationships in this direct way can make a major impact on passing these laws and relieving suffering for millions of people. I’m grateful to have been a part of it last week.
This 17 minute edu-tainment video contains excellent information about mass incarceration in the USA.
The term “lobbyist” originated in Massachusetts when people who wanted to influence legislators waited in the “lobby” outside of the Senate and House chambers.
On Tuesday, June 10, from 10 am to 3 pm, a group of activists will be hanging around the Statehouse lobbies, elevators and stairwells to ask, “Do you work here?”
If the answer is “yes,” we want to know:
For which legislator do you work?
Did your office receive the “New Jim Crow” on April 30 when volunteers delivered a copy of the landmark book by Michelle Alexander to every member of the Mass. House and Senate?
Did s/he read it? Did the legislator read it?
What did you think of it?
Did you know you can view videos of Michelle Alexander on you tube?
Does the legislator know about the bipartisan Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform caucus led by Rep. Sannicandro and Sen. Eldridge?
Will anyone from the legislator’s office be attending the June 24 briefing in Room 437 of the Statehouse, 11:30 am to 1 pm, featuring a speaker who recovered from drug addiction? EMIT, End Mass Incarceration Together, a Unitarian Universalist Task force of UU Mass Action, provides a free lunch. Hope to see you there.
Contact me if you want to join us in our informal lobbying on June 10. susan . tordella @ g mail . c o m 978-772-3930. Come for as much time as you can spare. We’ll be going in pairs.
Black men under age 35 who did not finish high school are more likely to be behind bars than employed in the labor market.
That sentence was buried halfway down in an announcement from the National Academies Press of the publishing of this report: “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences.”
These facts also grate at me, especially the third:
1. With the inclusion of local jails, the U.S. penal population totals 2.2 million adults, the largest in the world; the U.S. has nearly one-quarter of the world’s prisoners, but only 5 percent of its population.
2. Nearly 1 in 100 adults is in prison or jail, which is 5 to 10 times higher than rates in Western Europe and other democracies.
3. Of those incarcerated in 2011, about 60 percent were black or Hispanic.
The systematic racism throughout our country’s criminal justice system that created this “New Jim Crow,” outrages and frustrates me. The frustrations are that the system is so complex that it will take a series of laws and new policies and practices over the next five to ten years to change such a behemoth, and worse, MOST PEOPLE don’t know about the epidemic of mass incarceration, and if they do know about it, don’t act.
This issue hits close to home for me because I have volunteered in prisons since 2009, co-founding eight Toastmaters programs in men’s and women’s prisons. I know many people impacted by the politics, racism and classism that has delivered the New Jim Crow. I knew many black males in high school in Wilmington, Del. and often wonder if they were snagged in the net of imprisonment, that sends one in three black men to prison.
To take action in Massachusetts, contact me or start looking around in your area for others who are working on untangling the web of injustice created by the war on drugs. susan dot tordella at g mail dot com .
Copies of The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences are available from the National Academies Press at www.nap.edu or by calling tel. 202-334-3313or 1-800-624-6242