“I’ve been locked up in Illinois prisons since I was 16. I was tortured into confessing to a crime I didn’t commit. I’ve been here for over 25 years. To look out and think this is where I will stay for the rest of my life–now that is a living, unbearable hell.”
— Mark Clements, Chicago police torture victim, serving a juvenile life without parole sentence in Illinois
Mark Clements was arrested when he was 16 years old and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Like most juveniles sentenced to life without parole, he was tried as an adult and sent to an adult prison to serve his sentence.
Today, Mark is 43 years old. He has spent almost twice as much of his life locked up in prison as he lived free.
America outstrips every other nation in the world in the number of people it puts in its prisons. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, but accounts for 25 percent of prisoners.
According to a study by the Pew Center on the States, one out of every 100 adults in the U.S. is in prison or jail. And because of the racism of the American “justice” system, the numbers are much higher for people of color–if you are an African American man between the ages of 20 and 34, your likelihood of being behind bars today is one in nine.
But the U.S. stands even further apart from the rest of the world in one nightmarish aspect of its prison system–the men and women sentenced to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
There are over 132,000 people serving life sentences in the U.S. One in 10 are forbidden from ever receiving parolee, but overall, only one in four of the larger group will ever come before a parole board. Despite FBI crime statistics showing a drop in violent crime over the past decade, the number of people sentenced to life in prison has nearly doubled.
Paul Wright, the editor of Prison Legal News and author of two books on the prison system–who himself served 17 years of a life sentence–said life without parole sentences are “a death sentence by incarceration. You’re trading a slow form of death for a faster one.”
This kind of sentencing is virtually unheard of elsewhere in the world. “Western Europeans regard 10 to 12 years as extremely long term, even for offenders sentenced to life,” says James Whitman, author of the book Harsh Justice.
And among the prisoners with life sentences in the U.S. are 2,380 people who were sentenced to life without parole as “juvenile offenders”–in other words, they were under the age of 18 when the crimes they were accused of were committed–according to Human Rights Watch.
Of these juvenile offenders, 73 were sentenced to life in prison without parole at the age of 13 or 14 years old, according to research done by the Equal Justice Initiative.
To put this in perspective, no other country in the world sentences 13 year olds to life without parole. In fact, outside of the U.S., only 12 juvenile offenders anywhere in the world are serving this sentence, according to Human Rights Watch. Seven are in Israel, four are in South Africa, and one is in Tanzania.
There are over 2,000 in the United States.
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“I’m the first to say that I made my share of mistakes in life–I’m not perfect. But life without the possibility of parole is a life-draining sentence. No matter how hard I try to better myself, I’m treated as if I am the worst of the worst. I can’t sleep nights. I can’t rest in my body because this one bad choice to hang with friends could cost me my freedom forever.”
— Daniel Henney, serving a juvenile life without parole sentence in Illinois
ONE THING that stands out about prisoners sentenced to life without the possibility of parole is that they don’t stand out as the inhuman monsters they are often depicted to be.
Among all prisoners with life sentences, from 1988 to 2001, 40 percent were convicted of a crime other than murder. Of juvenile offenders given life without parole sentences, 59 percent–well over half–had never been convicted of a previous crime, according to Human Rights Watch.
Antonio Nunez was raised in Los Angles, his life shaped by gang violence. As the Equal Justice Initiative described in its report “Cruel and Unusual,” at the age of 14, he got into a car with two older men, one of whom had been kidnapped. A police chase ensued, and gunfire was exchanged. No one was killed; no one was even hurt. But Antonio was sentenced to life in California’s San Quentin prison, where he remains today.
“He has lost all hope,” his sister Cindy Nunez told Reuters. “We try to keep his spirits up by saying something will change in the law.”
Rather than their alleged crimes, other factors stand out about those serving life without parole sentences. Invariably, they are poor. Many came from violent homes or suffered abuse. And an overwhelming proportion are minorities. According to Human Rights Watch, among juvenile offenders serving life without parole for crimes other than murder, every single one is a person of color.
In Illinois, Mark Clements is one of 103 juvenile offenders serving a life without parole sentence. Of these 103, 74 are, like Mark, African American; 10 are Latino and 19 are white.
Ian Manuel is one. Raised in a climate of violence and poverty, he was drawn to gang activity at a young age. At 13, he committed a robbery and shot a woman, who survived. Feeling remorseful, Ian turned himself into the police and pled guilty. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Ian has spent years in solitary confinement and attempted suicide several times. He remains in prison in Florida despite the fact that the victim has forgiven him and petitioned the court for his release.
One reason these injustices can take place is that judges are barred, under mandatory sentencing laws, to take any account of age or background information.
In Illinois, for example, where judges are required to impose life without parole sentences on defendants convicted of certain crimes, without consideration of any mitigating circumstances, several have gone on record with their misgivings.
In passing sentence in one case, Judge James Linn stated that he believed the defendant “should suffer harsh criminal consequences for acting as a lookout in this case, but to suggest that he ought to receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, I find to be very, very hard to swallow, to the point where I can describe it as unconscionable.”
Probably the most notorious mandatory sentencing policy in the country is California’s “three strikes and you’re out” law, passed in a referendum of California voters in 1994. A third felony conviction automatically lands defendants in prison for 25 years to life. Since it was implemented, over 1,000 people have gone to prison under three strikes in California for non-serious crimes.
Take Santos Reyes. His “crime” was to help his cousin, a Mexican immigrant who was unable to take a drivers’ test because he couldn’t write English, but needed a license so he could begin working as a roofer with Reyes. For this, Santos was convicted of felony perjury.
Reyes had been convicted of two previous felonies more than a decade before–stealing a radio when he was 17 and a robbery when he was 22. In neither case was anyone harmed. In the years between, he had gotten married, had two children and worked steadily as a roofer. But because the perjury charge was a third felony, he was sentenced to prison under three strikes–where he has spent the last nine years, all for taking a drivers’ test for his cousin.
“He was convicted for the crimes of being poor and Mexican,” said Rachael Odes, who helps coordinate the Free Santos Reyes committee. “He’s just one of many. There are so many people serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes. He’s a regular guy who was trying to make a living.”
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“I have little hope at all. This sentence is like a death sentence. It is torture on my sanity. There’s no second chances for any of us. No matter how good or bad I am, these cruel prison conditions are all I have to look forward to.”
— Paul Lee, serving a juvenile life without parole sentence in Illinois
THE STANDARD argument in favor of harsh sentencing is that it keeps the public safe. But does it?
“Studies have shown that offenders who have served over 20 years in prison rarely ever reoffend and never for a violent crime,” says Linda Goodman from Citizens for Earned Release. “The recidivism rate for older inmates is less than 2 percent.”
And the rest of the industrialized world, where such harsh sentences are unheard of, has a far lower violent crime rate.
The U.S. hasn’t always had lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key sentencing policies. Before the 1970s, life without the possibility of parole sentences were unknown. During the 1960s, in fact, the emphasis in prison policy was on rehabilitation and helping prisoners get training and education so they could successfully rejoin society upon their release. Congress amended federal parole statues to make it possible for prisoners serving life sentence to be eligible for parole after 15 years.
But in the 1970s, this began to change. Politicians saw that “tough on crime” rhetoric could both win them votes and drive back the gains made by the civil rights and other social movements of the 1960s and early ’70s.
The emphasis of new laws turned to punishing prisoners, rather than rehabilitation. In 1984, the Sentencing Reform Act eliminated parole for all federal crimes. By 2000, 33 states had abolished parole, up from 17 over previous decades–and 24 states had introduced three-strikes sentencing laws.
And more and more states established life without the possibility of parole sentences. Currently, only New Mexico and Alaska don’t have a life without parole sentence on the books.
U.S. policymakers seem determined to march out of step with the rest of the world on the use of harsh prison sentences. In 2006, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling on all nations to abolish life without the possibility of parole sentences for youth offenders. The margin was 185 to 1–with the U.S. casting the one and only vote against.
Efforts to win change in sentencing laws have had mixed results. In 2004, California activists organized a campaign for a referendum to amend the three-strikes law to trigger the sentence only if the third felony was a “serious” one. Leading up to the vote, opinion polls showed two-thirds support for the referendum. But a last-minute advertising blitz and campaign by conservatives like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger turned the tide, and the referendum lost by a narrow margin.
This year, supporters were unable to gather enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot again in California. But a bill to abolish life without parole sentences for youth offenders passed the Senate Public Safety Committee in April and is being considered by the full state Senate. If this legislation passes, California would join nine other states that prohibit life without parole sentences for juveniles.
In Illinois, efforts by some grassroots groups to allow juveniles with life without parole sentences to come before a parole board after serving 10 years is underway, but the attempt is being stymied by opposition from victims’ rights groups.
It’s long past time that life without paroles sentences were eliminated–for juveniles or adults.
“Everyday that I wake up, it’s a pain knowing that I have this sentence, and if these devils get their way, I will have to be here the rest of my days. Knowing this, and being in this situation, just the thought alone will kill you from the inside out. A natural life sentence tells the public that you are a vile and insidious person, and that you possess no rehabilitative potential to reenter society and be a productive citizen. This is a bald-faced lie, and this lie can be brought to an end today.”
— Jamie Jackson, serving a life without parole sentence in Illinois
MARLENE MARTIN is national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty