Thousands serve life without parole for nonviolent crime

New ACLU report notes 3,281 prisoners serving longest sentences possible for crimes like shoplifting

By Natasha Lennard

Published November 13, 2013 3:25PM (EST)

Not only is the incarceration rate in the U.S. the highest in the world, falling disturbingly along racial fault lines, but thousands of the incarcerated in this country are serving the heaviest sentences possible short of death for nonviolent, often petty crimes.

A new ACLU report finds that 3,281 prisoners in the U.S. are serving life without parole for nonviolent crime. Highlighting the report, "Living Death," the Guardian's Ed Pilkington noted Wednesday, "Some [prisoners] were given the most extreme punishment short of execution for shoplifting; one was condemned to die in prison for siphoning petrol from a truck; another for stealing tools from a tool shed; yet another for attempting to cash a stolen cheque."

The U.S. is “virtually alone in its willingness to sentence non-violent offenders to die behind bars," commented the ACLU report author Jennifer Turner. And aligning with patterns in the American carceral system generally, life sentences for nonviolent crimes are far more regularly handed down to black defendants than white. Via the Guardian:

Even within America's starkly racially-charged penal system, the disparities in non-violent life without parole are stunning. About 65% of the prisoners identified nationwide by the ACLU are African American. In Louisiana, that proportion rises to 91%, including Jackson and Washington who are both black.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aclu Crime Incarceration Life Without Parole Living Death Non-violent Crime Prison Shoplifitng War On Drugs