Pubdate: Wed, 12 May 2004
Source: Sun Herald (MS)
Copyright: 2004, The Sun Herald
Author: Siobhan McDonough, Associated Press
Cited: The Sentencing Project
Cited: the report
Bookmark: (Incarceration)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


WASHINGTON - The number of prisoners serving life sentences has
increased 83 percent in the past 10 years as tough-on-crime
initiatives have led to harsher penalties, a study says.

Nearly 128,000 people, or one of every 11 offenders in state and
federal prisons, are serving life sentences, according to the study
released Tuesday by The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group
that promotes alternatives to prison. In 1992, 70,000 people had life

The figures, compiled from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and state
correctional agencies, also show the amount of time served by
criminals given life sentences increased from an average of 21 years
to 29 years between 1991 and 1997.

The report said the increases are not the result of more crime, since
violent crime fell significantly during the period covered by the
study. Rather, longer mandatory sentences and more restrictive parole
and commutation policies are most responsible.

In Tennessee, for example, state law requires that any person
sentenced to life with the possibility of parole serve at least 51
years before release is considered.

In Pennsylvania, all life sentences have been imposed without parole
since the 1940s, but governors frequently commuted such sentences,
doing so in more than 300 cases in the 1970s. But only one lifer has
had a sentence commuted since 1995, the report said.

The report cites one-size-fits-all "three strikes" laws requiring life
sentences for any third felony conviction as key to boosting the
number of lifers. Many are nonviolent drug offenders. Many of those
given such penalties are nonviolent drug offenders.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal
Foundation in California, favors stiff sentences.

"There's a good reason for tough sentencing," he said. "It's to keep
the bad guys off the street so they can't commit crimes."

In 2003, one in four lifers was serving without the possibility of
parole; in 1992 it was one in every six, according to the report. The
study also found that as of 1997, 90 percent of those serving life
sentences were in prison for a violent offense, including 69 percent
for murder.

"We can't say across the board none of them should have life
sentences, and conversely that the 90 percent that are in for violent
crimes should be in for life," Mauer said. "They should be assessed
individually in terms of sentencing and then considered if they should
be released by a parole board or some other decision-making body."

The report details how tougher standards have swollen the population
of lifers, further straining the resources and capacity of state
prison systems.

It costs $1 million to house a person sentenced to life in prison for
40 years, according to the report. Mauer said that money could in some
cases be better spent on preschool education, rehabilitation or more
police officers.

Michael O'Neill, law professor at George Mason University and a member
of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for federal
judges, said a life sentence is an important weapon against crime.

"If you take away life sentences, you reduce one of the important
deterrent effects," he said.

Still, O'Neill said, prison sentences at the state and federal levels
should be reviewed to make sure the penalty fits the crime.

"Incarceration of habitually violent offenders is a good thing because
it prevents them from preying on society," O'Neill said. "But it is
less clear whether long-term prison sentences are warranted for drug
offenders - not kingpins, but low-level drug offenders. The jury is
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