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Study Finds Record Number Of Inmates Serving Life Terms

Publication Date: 
July 23, 2009
Source: 
The New York Times
Author: 
Solomon Moore

Professor Joan Petersilia is quoted in this New York Times report about the nation's high rate of life sentences. The story also mentions Norman Williams, a client of the Stanford Criminal Defense Clinic who had his sentence, which was issued under California's Three Strikes law, reduced. Solomon Moore filed this story:

More prisoners today are serving life terms than ever before — 140,610 out of 2.3 million incarcerated nationally — under tough mandatory minimum-sentencing laws and the declining use of parole for eligible convicts, according to a report released Wednesday by The Sentencing Project, a corrections research and reform advocacy group. The report tracks the increase in life sentences from 1984, when the number of inmates serving life terms was 34,000.

Two-thirds of prisoners serving life sentences are Latino or black, the report found. In New York State, for example, 16.3 percent of prisoners serving life terms are white.

Although most people serving life terms were convicted of violent crimes, sentencing experts say there are many exceptions, like Norman Williams, 46, who served 13 years of a life sentence for stealing a floor jack out of a tow truck, a crime that was his third strike. He was released from Folsom State Prison in California in April after appealing his conviction on the grounds of insufficient counsel.

...

“When California courts sentence somebody to life with parole, it turns out that’s not possible after all,” said Joan Petersilia, a Stanford law professor and an expert on parole policy. “Board of parole hearings almost never grant releases, and that’s the reason that California’s lifer population has grown out of proportion to other states.”

...

But Professor Petersilia said she was skeptical that economic arguments alone would persuade voters to treat inmates serving life terms — most of whom have committed violent felonies like murder, rape, kidnapping and robbery — with more leniency.

“All the public opinion polls say that everybody will reconsider sentencing for nonviolent offenders or drug offenders, but they’re not willing to do anything different for violent offenders,” Professor Petersilia. In fact, she added, polls show support for even harsher sentences for sex offenses and other violent crimes.