Although the number of prison inmates is declining nationwide, the number of Blacks serving life sentences continues to rise, according to a new study.
A report by The Sentencing Project titled, “Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America” found that about 160,000 inmates are serving life sentences in prisons throughout the United States, and more than 47 percent of them are Black. Non-Hispanic Whites account for about one-third of prisoners serving life.
The racial disparity for those serving life without parole sentences is even greater, with Blacks making up 58 percent of prisoners destined to spend the rest of their life behind bars.
The Sentencing Project reported that “the black population of lifers reaches much higher in states such as Maryland (77.4%), Georgia (72.0%), and Mississippi (71.5%).”
Since 1984, the number of prisoners sentenced to life has quadrupled and the total number of lifers is up 11.8 percent since 2008 alone. The Sentencing Project reported that there has been a 22.2% rise in life without parole sentences, since 2009.
Despite accounting for less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, Blacks account for 28 percent of total arrests, and 38 percent of those convicted of a felony.
According to the report: “The upward creep in life sentences has accelerated in recent decades as an element of the ‘tough on crime’ political environment that began in the 1980s. The idea of whole-life prison sentences easily won approval in a period of growing skepticism about the value of rehabilitation.”
The report continued: “During this time policymakers and the public grew comfortable with the idea of putting people away for either long, discrete terms of years or simply for the rest of their lives. As fear of crime among the public and policymakers was crystallized by sensationalized media accounts of formerly incarcerated persons reoffending, the corrections system came to be accepted principally as a retributive tool.”
Florida, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Michigan and California account for nearly 60 percent of prisoners serving life without parole sentences.
The only thing more expensive than sentencing prisoners to life without parole is sentencing them to death.
A 2009 study by rhe Death Penalty Information Center found that the state of California spends $137 million a year on death penalty inmates, largely because of court costs. Sentencing criminals to life without parole cost the state $11.5 million a year.
Advocates for criminal justice reform argue that rehabilitating drug addicts and preparing prisoners for life after incarceration costs far less.
The Sentencing Project found that individuals released from life sentences were less than one-third as likely to be rearrested within three years as all released persons.
The Sentencing Project study offered a number of reforms to current life sentencing policies including eliminating the sentence of life without parole completely, increasing the use of executive clemency rights, preparing lifers for release from prison, and restoring the role of parole.
According to the report, most states staff parole boards with political appointees, making it much harder for evidence and expert testimony to have an impact on life sentences.
The report stated: “In many ways, Americans support the belief in second chances, but there is a reluctance to apply this perspective to those who commit crime, especially serious crime.”
The report continued: “However, many prisoners go on demonstrate true personal reform, remorse, and ability to contribute positively to society if given the chance.”