Should All Nonviolent Offenses Have A Parole Option?


Jesse Webster was serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for a nonviolent offense, locked in Greeneville prison in southern Illinois. On March 30, President Barack Obama commuted Webster’s sentence, along with 60 others serving sentences for nonviolent convictions.

Webster was initially convicted in 1995 on charges of participation in drug conspiracy and falsifying taxes, reports The New York Times.  When he was sentenced, the judge noted that life without parole was “too high” for his crime. 

Webster was not the only inmate serving life in prison with no possibility of parole for a nonviolent crime. According to Bureau of Prisons and state Departments of Corrections data, as of 2012 more than 3,200 nonviolent offenders were serving life without parole, reports the ACLU.

Roughly 79 percent of the nonviolent offenders behind bars for life were reportedly convicted of a drug-related crime, like Webster. 

“It’s like dying but not being put to rest,” said Dicky Joe Jackson, 55, who is currently serving a life sentence for trafficking methamphetamine.

Many judges are required to sentence those convicted of drug-related crimes according to mandatory minimum sentences.  In the mid-1990s, crimes like drug trafficking were given the mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole in a bid to combat drug abuse and trafficking.

Sentences of life without parole for nonviolent crimes have drawn criticism from officials at many levels of government, including the judges who are legally obliged to hand down such sentences. Federal District Court Judge James R. Spencer expressed frustration while sentencing a nonviolent convict to life without parole for selling “small amounts” of cocaine.

“I think a life sentence for what you have done in this case is ridiculous. It is a travesty. I don’t have any discretion about it. I don’t agree with it, either. And I want the world and the record to be clear on that. This is just silly,” said Spencer.

“But as I say, I don’t have any choice.”

The president noted while commuting the sentences of 61 prisoners on March 30 that “most of them are low-level drug offenders whose sentences would have been shorter if they were convicted under today’s laws,” reports NBC.

Sources: ACLU, NBC News, The New York Times / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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