8 Shocking Facts From the ACLU’s Report on Life Without Parole

A new study documents the thousands of Americans serving life without parole for committing non-violent crimes

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Lucy Nicholson / REUTERS

Inmates are escorted by a guard through San Quentin state prison in San Quentin, Calif., on June 8, 2012.

A sentence of life in prison without the possibility parole seems like it would be a punishment reserved only for the most heinous criminals, those deemed unfit for reintroduction into society. That’s not always the case, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union, which advocates for more lenient sentencing.

The cases documented in A Living Death are not necessarily typical, and many are the result of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, not the discretion of a judge or jury. But some of the stories of the 3,278 people the ACLU counts serving life without parole in federal prisons and the nine states that provided them with data are nonetheless shocking.

The number of U.S. prisoners who received life sentences without parole quadrupled between 1992 and 2012.

More than 18 percent of nonviolent offenders serving life without parole in the federal system are in for their first offense.

Lance Saltzman, of Florida, removed a gun from his home that belonged to an abusive stepfather who had used the weapon to threaten his mother repeatedly, he said. He was convicted of armed burglary and, due to a previous burglary conviction when he was 16, sentenced to mandatory life without parole.

In the state of Illinois, a black person is 33.25 times more likely than a white person to be sentenced to life without parole for a non-violent crime.

Clarence Aaron, a college student with no prior criminal record, was given three life-without-parole sentences for his minor role in two planned large drug deals, one of which never took place. He received longer sentences than his co-conspirators and has spent the past 20 years in prison.

Black prisoners comprise 91.4 percent of the non-violent life-without-parole population in the state of Louisiana.

Vincent Winslow was homeless when he acted as a go-between in the sale of two $10 bags of marijuana to an undercover cop. The seller was not arrested. Based on decade old drug possession conviction and unarmed burglaries committed 14 and 24 years earlier, Winslow was sentenced to life without parole.

The crimes for which people have been sentenced to life without parole (when combined with prior convictions) include stealing: small change from a parked car, a pair of socks, nine children’s videotapes, a pair of work gloves from a department store, a leaf blower, three golf clubs, chocolate chip cookies and a slice of pizza.

Read the full report here.