May 12, 2004

Almost 10% of All Prisoners Are Now Serving Life Terms


Almost 10 percent of all inmates in state and federal prisons are serving life sentences, an increase of 83 percent from 1992, according to a report released yesterday by the Sentencing Project, a prison research and advocacy group.

In two states, New York and California, almost 20 percent of inmates are serving life sentences, the report found.

The increase is not the result of a growth in crime, which actually fell 35 percent from 1992 to 2002, the report pointed out. Instead, it is the result of more punitive laws adopted by Congress and state legislatures as part of the movement to get tough on crime, the report said.

The jump in the number of inmates serving life sentences imposes large costs on states, about $1 million for each inmate who serves out his full sentence behind bars, said Marc Mauer, the assistant director of the Sentencing Project and an author of the study. This is a heavy burden on taxpayers at a time when most states are facing record budget deficits and many states are searching for ways to cut prison costs.

The great majority of prisoners serving life sentences, now totaling 127,677, have been convicted of a violent offense, with 68.9 percent convicted of murder, the report found.

But, Mr. Mauer said, "the very broad application of life sentences has blurred the distinction between what is a really serious crime deserving a life sentence and some crimes where there is less culpability." For example, he said, 4 percent of those serving life sentences were convicted of drug crimes and 3.9 percent of property crimes, and a sizable number were battered women who killed their husbands after they themselves had been beaten.

Some of those serving a life sentence for the least serious crimes have been sentenced under California's "three strikes and you're out" law, the report said. The Supreme Court recently upheld the life sentence of Leandro Andrade, whose third strike, or felony conviction, was for the theft of children's videotapes worth $153 that he intended as Christmas gifts for his nieces.

In addition, the report found, there were 23,523 inmates serving a life sentence who were mentally ill and whose acts might have been caused by their illness.

The report includes both offenders sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and those given life sentences with a chance at parole after serving a specified minimum term.

The report also found that the recidivism rate for lifers released from prison was 20 percent. Among all prison inmates, 67 percent are re-arrested within three years.

The report did not suggest why inmates serving life terms have a lower recidivism rate. But criminologists have long noted that criminals start to commit less crime as they get into their 30's or older.

Before the 1970's, most states had systems in which judges had the discretion to impose sentences of indeterminate length. The idea was to give inmates a chance to rehabilitate themselves and earn parole, or early release.

But in the 1980's, and then even more strongly in the 1990's, Congress and state legislatures took away this judicial discretion, enacting laws like mandatory minimum sentences and truth-in-sentencing policies, which required inmates to serve the full length of time to which they were sentenced. Additionally, some states made sentences like 25 years to life into life without parole.

Many governors and state legislatures also sharply limited the authority of parole boards to release inmates early.

The cumulative result of these changes, Mr. Mauer said, is that inmates serving sentences that once would have been 25 years to life are serving a longer portion of their sentence, or all of it, till they die in prison, thus increasing the number of lifers behind bars.

Joshua Marquis, the district attorney of Clatsop County in Oregon, said that longer sentences, including more life sentences, had been a key to reducing the crime rate. "There is a reason crime in Oregon is down 40 percent in the last decade, and that is that the small population that perpetrates the majority of the most violent crimes is locked up for longer periods of time," Mr. Marquis said.

Until the passage of sentencing guidelines in 1989, said Mr. Marquis, who is on the board of the National District Attorneys Association, judges in Oregon could sentence a murderer to prison for life, but he could get out in only eight or nine years. "This caused enormous frustration for law enforcement and the public," he said.

In six states plus the federal system, a life sentence now automatically means life without parole, the report said. They are Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania and South Dakota.

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