Back in 2002, I published an Op-Ed in the New York Times titled "Fatal Flaws In The Justice System" in which I argued that we weren't paying enough attention to lifers. That the death penalty debate was causing us to ignore the far more rampant problem of overincarceration. Back then I said:
"from inside the criminal justice system, the whole debate about the death penalty can sometimes seem like a distraction. The reality is that for every person on death row, there are many more who will die before completing their sentences. They will die alone in their cells or in the prison yard. They will die from jailhouse violence or natural causes hastened by stressful conditions and substandard medical care.
The main causes of these virtual death sentences are three-strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentencing. Because of them, more and more people receive prison terms of 20 or 30 years or life with no chance of parole. In California, there are inmates serving life sentences for petty theft, receiving stolen property or possession of marijuana for sale. All over this country governments are spending more and more money on aging inmates - creating entire geriatric wards for prisoners no longer able to walk or talk, let alone maim or kill.
Long sentences are not rare. The next case I am likely to take to trial carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years to life. Why? Because my client is charged with possessing more than four ounces of cocaine. Just about every public defender I know has a horror story about a client who was the victim of a long mandatory sentence. Almost no one else remembers these prisoners. They do not face the needle or the electric chair, so there is no debate about them."
Well it's only been three years, but today, the reporting side of the Times has published a long article which totally validates the point I made then. In it, Adam Liptak notes that:
A survey by The New York Times found that about 132,000 of the nation's prisoners, or almost 1 in 10, are serving life sentences. The number of lifers has almost doubled in the last decade, far outpacing the overall growth in the prison population. Of those lifers sentenced between 1988 and 2001, about a third are serving time for sentences other than murder, including burglary and drug crimes.
Growth has been especially sharp among lifers with the words "without parole" appended to their sentences. In 1993, the Times survey found, about 20 percent of all lifers had no chance of parole. Last year, the number rose to 28 percent.
The phenomenon is in some ways an artifact of the death penalty. Opponents of capital punishment have promoted life sentences as an alternative to execution. And as the nation's enthusiasm for the death penalty wanes amid restrictive Supreme Court rulings and a spate of death row exonerations, more states are turning to life sentences."
I'm pleased to see that this important point is finally getting some more ink. It's high time that we paid a bit more attention to the systemic issues in our system, not just those that conveniently tug at our heartstrings.