Did you know you could go to jail for possessing the decongestant Sudafed? Okay, let’s say you knew that. But did you know you this Sudafed offense could put you away for life — with no chance of parole.
It hardly seems to make sense, even if Sudafed can be used to manufacture methamphetamine, the ostensible reason for criminalizing it under certain circumstances. Life without parole?
In fact, that minor violation is just one of hundreds of small-time, nonviolent crimes that have landed Americans in prison for life without parole. In fact, according to a report issued today by the American Civil Liberties Union, approximately 3,200 U.S. citizens currently sit in prison serving what amounts to extremely slow death sentences — all for nonviolent, generally minor offenses.
The ACLU excluded all sex offenses from the study, even if they were ostensibly nonviolent.
Because the study covered only federal prisons and the nine state prison systems that responded to the ACLU’s records requests, the actual number of prisoners in jail for life on nonviolent offenses is certain to be much higher than 3,200.
The reason is the proliferation of mandatory sentencing and “three strikes” laws throughout the country, that have affected people like Anthony Jerome Jackson. A cook with a sixth grade education, Jackson had two prior convictions for burglary when he clumsily swiped a wallet from a hotel room, waking up the occupants in the process.
Jackson ran away, but was nabbed as soon as he tried to use one of the credit cards in the stolen wallet. He was appointed a poorly-prepared attorney, so Jackson tried to represent himself at his trial, which went about as well as could be expected.
Under South Carolina’s three-strikes law, Jackson now sits in prison for life with no hope of release.
Then there is Teresa Griffin who, according to the ACLU study, was forced to act as a drug mule for her abusive boyfriend. When she was 26 and seven months pregnant, she was busted with $35,000 and half-a-pound of cocaine, which she was carrying for the boyfriend. It was her first offense.
Griffin, now 47, says she is deeply sorry for what she did. "I would give anything…to be able to make different decisions," she says. "I know I did something wrong, but not enough to take away my life."
Other petty crimes on the list of life-without-parole offenses include siphoning gas from a truck, passing out LSD at a Grateful Dead concert, shoplifting two jerseys from a sporting good store, stealing tools from a tool shed — the list goes on and on. A full 79 percent, almost eight of every 10, were in prison on drug offenses.
The ACLU found that 65 percent of people imprisoned for life on nonviolent crimes are African American. Many of these permanently incarcerated people suffer from mental illnesses or were financially destitute when they committed their minor crimes.
Needless to say, housing these nonviolent offenders is not free. The ACLU estimates that reducing their sentences to fall in line with those normally handed down for such petty crimes would save taxpayers $1.8 billion.
Watch a four-minute video summary of the ACLU’s report, A Living Death, below.
SOURCES: Mother Jones, ACLU (2)