The distribution of nonviolent life without parole (LWOP) sentences reveals that African-American offenders bear the brunt of this punishment practice. According to the ACLU’s groundbreaking “A Living Death” report, the distribution of nonviolent LWOP is:
65.8% of prisoners serving the sentence are African-American
17.8% of prisoners serving the sentence are white
15.7% of prisoners serving the sentence are Latino
This graphic from that report shows how drastically the proportion of African-American
prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent crimes exceeds the proportion of African Americans in the population of each jurisdiction below.
The ACLU notes that the sentencing disparities cannot be explained by the differential
involvement of different races in crime alone.
A number of factors contribute to the evident racial disparities in nonviolent LWOP sentences. African Americans are treated differently at every stage of law enforcement proceedings. Disparate policing, disparate arrest rates, disparate prosecutorial charging practices, and facially race-neutral sentencing policies that actually have racially disparate effects combine to produce these unfair punishment outcomes. Given that over 80% of the nonviolent LWOP sentences nationwide were handed down mandatorily, discretion was not in the hands of the judges who imposed the sentences but instead was in the hands of prosecutors with discretion over how to charge the offenders. The outcomes are clear: