LAS VEGAS, NV – In the first-ever study of people serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses in the United States, the ACLU found that at least 3,278 prisoners fit this category in federal and state prisons combined.

A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses” features key statistics about these prisoners, an analysis of the laws that produced their sentences, and case studies of 110 men and women serving these sentences. Of the 3,278 prisoners, 79% were convicted of nonviolent, drug-related crimes such as possession or distribution; 20% of nonviolent property crimes like theft.

“The crimes triggering these extreme sentences are not always serious, violent crimes. For example, in Nevada, a person facing a fourth felony conviction of any kind—nonviolent or otherwise—may be sentenced to die in prison,” said Vanessa Spinazola, Legislative and Advocacy Director for the ACLU of Nevada.

“In this ‘disposable society’ we’ve created, we must reconsider the way we deal with individuals serving life sentences for non-violent crimes. Rehabilitation should be our first priority in these instances, not throwing away lives by throwing away the key,” said Tod Story, Executive Director of the ACLU of Nevada.

In 2012, Nevada had 491 prisoners serving life without parole. However, the Nevada Department of Corrections did not provide the ACLU with any of the data it requested, including how many inmates are serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses. Only 23 jurisdictions permit the sentence of life without parole for nonviolent offenses, and Nevada is only one of eight jurisdictions to allow life without parole for first-time non-violent offenses.

“The punishments these people received are grotesquely out of proportion to the crimes they committed,” said Jennifer Turner, ACLU Human Rights Researcher and author of the report. “In a humane society, we can hold people accountable for drug and property crimes without throwing away the key.”

The ACLU estimates that, of the 3,278 serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses, 65% are Black, 18% are white, and 16% percent are Latino, evidence of extreme racial disparities. Of the 3,278, most were sentenced under mandatory sentencing policies, including mandatory minimums and habitual offender laws that required them to be incarcerated until they die.

The report also reveals that 63% of surveyed prisoners were held in solitary confinement while serving a sentence of life without parole. With Nevada’s passage of SB 107 during the 2013 legislative session, the Nevada Department of Corrections is required to share information with the legislature about their isolation practices, including which prisoners are placed in solitary confinement and for how long.

“The ACLU of Nevada looks forward to working with the legislature to roll back harsh and outdated sentencing laws that destroy individuals and their families and cost our communities and state too much money,” said Spinazola.

In addition to interviews, correspondence, and a survey of hundreds of prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses, the ACLU based “A Living Death” on court records, a prisoner survey, and data from the United States Sentencing Commission, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and state Departments of Corrections obtained through Freedom of Information Act and public records requests. The Nevada Department of Corrections did not comply with the public records requests sent by the ACLU.

The report includes recommendations to federal and state governments for changes in sentencing and clemency. The proposed policy reforms would help bring balance back to sentencing—crucial steps to reduce our nation’s self-imposed dependence on incarceration.

Additional Resources

  • The report, “A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses,” is available here: www.aclu.org/fairandsmart

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