The criminal justice system over-relies on a range of excessive punishments beyond the death penalty and juvenile life without parole sentences. These punishments include life without parole (LWOP) for non-violent offenders, the unbridled use of solitary confinement, lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent and drug-possession crimes, and collateral consequences that accompany criminal convictions like deportation and the loss of voting rights. The Eighth Amendment prohibits punishments that are cruel and usual, and those that bear no proportionality to the crime fit into the category of prohibited sentences. LWOP for nonviolent offenses provides a prime example.
LWOP for Nonviolent Offenses is Unusual
Only 22 states and the federal government authorize LWOP sentences for nonviolent offenses. Of those 22 states, just eight have actually imposed an LWOP sentence for a non-violent offense. Thus, only nine jurisdictions actually utilize the sentencing practice. Approximately 3,000 individuals around the country are under the sentence. Given that America experiences roughly 10 million non-violent crimes annually, the fact that a mere 3,000 LWOP sentences have been handed down for nonviolent crimes across many years demonstrates that the punishment is extremely rare and excessive. Importantly, one jurisdiction—the federal system—imposes almost two-thirds of all nonviolent LWOP sentences.
LWOP for Nonviolent Offenses is Cruel
Sentencing someone to die in prison for crimes like selling a single crack rock, or for possessing stolen wrenches is beyond punitive. Nonviolent LWOP sentences do not meaningfully serve any legitimate penological purpose. They forswear rehabilitation altogether; they take the concept of retribution beyond its breaking point; and they incapacitate individuals far longer than necessary to prevent additional crime while depriving those people of any chance to ever earn release. There is also no convincing empirical evidence that nonviolent LWOP sentences meaningfully deter crime, in large part because they are so rarely handed down.