Pubdate: Tue, 05 Jul 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Timothy Williams


BURKEVILLE, Va. - Lenny Singleton is the first to admit that he 
deserved an extended stay behind bars. To fuel his crack habit back 
in 1995, he walked into 13 stores over eight days and either 
distracted a clerk or pretended to have a concealed gun before 
stealing from the cash register. One time, he was armed with a knife 
with a six-inch blade that he had brought from his kitchen.

Mr. Singleton, 28 at the time, was charged with robbery and accepted 
a plea deal, fully expecting to receive a long jail sentence. But a 
confluence of factors worked against him, including the particularly 
hard-nosed judge who sentenced him and the zero-tolerance ethos of 
the time against users of crack cocaine. His sentence was very long: 
two life sentences. And another 100 years. And no possibility for parole.

There is a growing consensus that the criminal justice system has 
incarcerated too many Americans for too many years, with liberals and 
conservatives alike denouncing the economic and social costs of 
holding 2.2 million people in the nation's prisons and jails. And 
Congress is currently debating a criminal justice bill that, among 
other provisions, would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for 
nonviolent offenders.

But a divide has opened within the reform movement over how to 
address prisoners who have been convicted of violent crimes, 
including people like Mr. Singleton, who threatened shop owners but 
did not harm anyone. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union 
favor a swift 50 percent reduction in prison populations, while 
conservative prison reform organizations like Right on Crime 
prioritize the release of nonviolent offenders and worry that 
releasing others could backfire and reduce public support.

Nonviolent drug offenders make up only about 17 percent of all state 
prison inmates around the nation, while violent offenders make up 
more than 50 percent, according to federal data.

As the prison population has increased sharply over the past 30 
years, so too has the number of those sentenced to life. Mr. 
Singleton is among nearly 160,000 prisoners serving life sentences - 
roughly the population of Eugene, Ore. The number of such inmates has 
more than quadrupled since 1984, and now about one in nine prison 
inmates is serving a life term, federal data shows.

"People are celebrating the stabilization of the prison population in 
recent years, but the scale of mass incarceration is so substantial 
that meaningful reduction is not going to happen by tinkering around 
the edges," said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing 
Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates changes in 
sentencing policy.

The United States, which has about 4.4 percent of the world's 
population, holds 22 percent of its prisoners, according to the 
International Centre for Prison Studies, a research organization 
based in England.

Mr. Singleton's prison term, which makes it likely that he will die 
behind bars, attracted little attention in 1996. It was common then 
for judges in Virginia and the rest of the country to impose long 
prison terms for crack-related crimes. Still, even hard-line 
prosecutors who were active during that period say Mr. Singleton's 
sentence seemed unduly harsh for crimes in which no one was hurt.

"Crack cocaine scared the hell out of a lot of people," said William 
G. Broaddus, a former Virginia attorney general who is now in private 
practice and had no role in the case. "It's disappointing there 
wasn't more consideration as to why this man did this. Do we really 
want to keep him in jail for the rest of his life? Having said that, 
it doesn't surprise me in the slightest that this judge meted out the 
sentence that he did."

William F. Rutherford, the judge who sentenced Mr. Singleton, has 
been retired for years. During a recent series of interviews, he said 
he had no recollection of the case, but after he reviewed Mr. 
Singleton's court files, he said he had no regrets about how he handled it.

"Under the circumstances," he said, "it would not be unusual for me 
to give out that kind of sentence."

Mr. Rutherford, who turned 89 in June, was known in Norfolk, Va., 
legal circles for his tough sentences, and he acknowledged that he 
was an intimidating presence on the bench.

"I'm a no-nonsense guy and I wouldn't take any crap off of defense 
lawyers or anybody," he said. "The people in jail did not like coming 
into Courtroom No. 7."

D. J. Hansen, the prosecutor in Mr. Singleton's case, said Mr. 
Rutherford "had a reputation for being one of the tougher judges" in 
the courthouse. Mr. Hansen, who is now a deputy commonwealth's 
attorney in Chesapeake, Va., added that "Virginia is a hard state" 
when it comes to doling out punishments, and pointed out that he 
sought a life sentence for Mr. Singleton because of the serious 
nature of the robberies.

When compared with recent cases, Mr. Singleton's sentence appears to 
be disproportionately harsh. The maximum penalty for second-degree 
murder in Virginia is 40 years, and people convicted in recent months 
of attempted murder and similar crimes have received sentences far 
shorter than Mr. Singleton's. For example, Tamar Harris, 21, who shot 
and wounded a police officer, was sentenced in April to 23 years in 
prison, and Jermaine Rogers, 30, of Norfolk, who pleaded guilty to 
two counts of attempted murder, was sentenced in March to 10 years.

Mr. Singleton, 49, who is called "Pops" by other inmates here at the 
Nottoway Correctional Center in central Virginia, has largely 
forgotten the details of his weeklong crime spree. Unlike many of his 
fellow inmates, he does not claim he is innocent.

He recalled in an interview that before each robbery, he would smoke 
crack and drink a 12-pack of beer. In all, he got about $500.

"After I sobered up, I couldn't believe what I had done," he said. "I 
was like, 'Damn, Lenny, what the hell?'"

Mr. Singleton played football at Langston University, the 
historically black college in Oklahoma from which he graduated, and 
later joined the Navy, but was kicked out for using drugs. In prison, 
he has attended substance abuse classes and become a devoted reader 
of self-help books from the prison library.

He works in a furniture plant at the prison and earns 80 cents an 
hour building furniture used in Virginia's universities. But a 
percentage of his pay is subtracted for court costs and fines, and he 
still owes the state $1,800.

Last year, he married a high school classmate, Vandy, with whom he 
had lost touch. They recently compiled a book of their letters 
detailing his incarceration and her battles with cancer.

Mr. Singleton, who prison officials acknowledge has never committed 
an infraction behind bars, has filed for a conditional pardon with 
Gov. Terry McAuliffe, saying in part that his court-appointed lawyer 
failed to adequately represent him. Mr. Singleton said he had been 
unaware that he could be sentenced to life in prison until he had 
already pleaded guilty.

His lawyer at that time, Jon M. Babineau, said he was legally 
prohibited from discussing Mr. Singleton's case because of Virginia's 
attorney-client privilege laws, but said he had done his best to 
represent his client.

In a prison administrative office on a recent morning, Mr. Singleton 
said he had seen inmates convicted of murder and rape come and go, 
and was hopeful that he would not die in prison.

"I was out of my mind on drugs, but I wasn't going to hurt anybody," 
he said. "I was just after the money."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom