Pubdate: Thu, 23 Jul 2009
Source: New York Times (NY)
Page: A24
Copyright: 2009 The New York Times Company
Author: Solomon Moore
Referenced: The Sentencing Project report
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


CORONA, Calif. -- Mary Thompson, an inmate at the California 
Institution for Women here, was convicted of two felonies for a 
robbery spree in which she threatened victims with a knife. Her third 
felony under California's three-strikes law was the theft of three 
tracksuits to pay for her crack cocaine habit in 1982.

Like one out of five prisoners in California, and nearly 10 percent 
of all prisoners nationally in 2008, Ms. Thompson is serving a life 
sentence. She will be eligible for parole by 2020.

More prisoners today are serving life terms than ever before -- 
140,610 out of 2.3 million inmates being held in jails and prisons 
across the country -- 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 group that 
calls for the elimination of life sentences without parole. 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.

The rising number of inmates serving life terms is straining 
corrections budgets at a time when financially strapped states are 
struggling to cut costs. California's prison system, the nation's 
largest, with 170,000 inmates, also had the highest number of 
prisoners with life sentences, 34,164, or triple the number in 1992, 
the report found.

In four other states -- Alabama, Massachusetts, Nevada and New York 
- -- at least one in six prisoners is serving a life term, according to 
the report.

The California prison system is in federal receivership for 
overcrowding and failing to provide adequate medical care to 
prisoners, many of whom are elderly and serving life terms.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this week repeated his proposal to reduce 
the inmate population through a combination of early releases for 
nonviolent offenders, home monitoring for some parole violators and 
more lenient sentencing for some felonies. But there are no credible 
plans to increase the rate at which prisoners serving life sentences 
are granted parole.

"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."

Margo Johnson, 48, also an inmate at the women's prison here, has 
served 24 years of a life sentence for a 1984 murder. She has been 
recommended for release four times by the state parole board, but she 
said that Mr. Schwarzenegger had rejected the board's recommendation each time.

"Sometimes I wonder, is it just a game they're playing with me?" Ms. 
Johnson said.

Seven prison systems -- Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, 
Pennsylvania, South Dakota and the federal penitentiary system -- do 
not offer the possibility of parole to prisoners serving life terms.

That policy also extends to juveniles in Illinois, Louisiana and 
Pennsylvania. A total of 6,807 juveniles were serving life terms in 
2008, 1,755 without the possibility of parole. California again led 
the nation in the number of juveniles serving life terms, with 2,623.

"The expansion of life sentences suggests that we're rapidly losing 
faith in the rehabilitation model," said Ashley Nellis, the report's 
main author.

De Angelo McVay, 42, is serving a life term with no possibility of 
parole at the maximum security state prison in Lancaster, Calif., for 
his role in the kidnapping and torture of a man.

He said in an interview Wednesday that he had used his 10 years in 
prison to reform himself, taking ministry classes, participating in 
the prison chapel program, becoming vice chairman of his prison yard 
and avoiding behavioral demerits.

"I'm remorseful for what I did," he said. "But I got no chance at 
parole, and I know guys who have committed killings and they have parole."

Supporters of longer sentences for criminals, including victims 
rights organizations, prosecutors and police associations, often cite 
public safety, the deterrent effect of punishment and the need to 
remove criminals from society.

But the number of aging inmates serving life sentences has risen 
sharply as the sluggish economy has shrunk state budgets. By 2004, 
the number of inmates over 50 had nearly doubled from a decade 
earlier, to more than 20 percent, according to the report. Older 
inmates cost more because they have more health needs. California, 
for example, spends $98,000 to $138,000 a year on each prisoner over 
50, compared with the national average of about $35,000 a year.

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.

Burk Foster, a criminal justice professor at Saginaw Valley State 
University in Michigan and an expert on the Louisiana penitentiary 
system, said the expansion of life sentences started at the Louisiana 
State Penitentiary at Angola, the nation's largest maximum 
penitentiary, in the early 1970s, when most people sentenced to life 
terms were paroled after they had been deemed fit to re-enter society.

"Angola was a prototype of a lifer's prison," said Professor Foster. 
"In 1973, Louisiana changed its life sentencing law so that lifers 
would no longer be parole eligible, and they applied that law more 
broadly over time to include murder, rape, kidnapping, distribution 
of narcotics and habitual offenders."

Professor Foster said sentencing more prisoners to life sentences was 
an abandonment of the "corrective" function of prisons.

"Rehabilitation is not an issue at Angola," he said. "They're just 
practicing lifetime isolation and incapacitation."
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