Mass Incarceration. The New Jim Crow. The War on Drugs. Thanks to Professor Michelle Alexander these phrases are now intimately linked in the minds of social justice advocates and faith leaders as we begin a critical struggle for fairness, justice and human rights in the criminal courts, police precincts and prisons of America. The Next Movement is convinced that America can do better, and that the majority of Americans would want us to do better, if they knew the truth. The truth about systemic incarceration, structural second class status, completely uneven law enforcement practices, oppressive and selectively enforced laws that is filling the prisons of America.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Wasting Lives, Wasted Resources: The Tragedy of Life Sentences

As we work to end the mass incarceration of so many Americans, primarily African American, other people of color, and the poor, it is important that we continually educate ourselves on the many systemic issues that are driving up those numbers.

An important report was released today from The Sentencing Project, a key ally in the fight to end mass incarceration focused on the wide variety of sentencing issues that contribute to the rise in imprisonment. Their new report, Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America, details the trends in life sentences, as well as providing current statistics on a national and state basis.

"Life" sentences have risen four-fold since 1984, some of it due to the end of death penalty convictions in many states, but much of the rise is also due to the increased use of mandatory sentencing, three strikes laws and other "get tough" legislation. There are now more than 160,000 prisoners serving life, 50,000 of them serving "life without parole." Of those serving life-without-parole, more than 10,000 were sentenced before their 18th birthdays . . . some as young as 12 and 13. And, as is typical with our criminal (in)justice system, these sentences are used far more frequently with minority populations. While one in nine prisoners is serving a life sentence, African Americans make up nearly half of all lifers. 

Our society has unfortunately adopted the perspective of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, that our "prisons are for punishment." Almost completely absent from the conversation is the rehabilitative aspect of serving time, the capacity for us to change, leaving no room for redemption.

Over the next several months legislation will be introduced in Illinois to address two ends of this spectrum. One group is actively working on a bill to address the early release of elderly prisoners. These are men and women that are getting totally unsatisfactory care from a prison system that is not designed to care for them - where we are wasting money that could be more efficiently used to care for them on the outside. The other is focused on providing a parole hearing process for juveniles that were sentenced to life without parole. In this situation, the Supreme Court has already ruled this sentence to be unconstitutional, but the state has been slow to address those individuals that are already serving those sentences. You will hear more from us on specific actions and support requests for these two initiatives.
Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Hebrews 13:3
A luta continua.

Daryle Brown