Shame On Us - 140,500 In
Prison For Life
By James Donahue
Those ugly "made-up" wars on drugs and against terror and the mandatory minimum
sentencing laws are taking an appalling toll on American citizens. The most recent count in 2009 shows 140,610 people were
sentenced to live the rest of their natural lives behind bars.
This means that more prisoners are serving life terms in the United States than
ever before in the nation’s history. This is according to a report by the Sentencing Project, a group calling for the
elimination of life sentences without parole.
This group has tracked an increase in life sentences since 1984, when the number
of inmates serving life terms was just 34,000.
Americans like to say they live in the “land of the free,” but in
reality, the United States now has the highest incarceration record, per capita, in the world. By the end of 2009 there were
743 adults under some form of imprisonment or parole per 100,000 people.
According to the U. S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 2,292,133 adults
being incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons and county jails as of the end of 2009. The statistics for 2010 are not
yet made available.
Another 4,933,667 adults were on probation or parole. This added up to 7,225,800
adults that were under some form of correctional supervision. In addition another 86,927 juveniles were under detention.
The horrible statistics show that the United States now houses a quarter of all
prisoners in the world, and more inmates than the top 35 European countries combined.
Of course, the minorities are among those most frequently sentenced to time behind
bars. The statistics show one of every three black men under some form of incarceration during their lives.
The execution of prisoners for so-called capitol offenses also falls among the
highest number in the world. Since 1978 there have been 1,273 executions, with another 3,251 prisoners still waiting for execution.
Texas has led the nation in executions, with 476 prisoners having been put to death in that state alone during that period,
These statistics do not include the multitudes of traffic offenses, shop lifting
cases and other misdemeanor charges brought against citizens. We suspect that if we throw these numbers into the mill, most
people in the country are touched in some way by police, the courts and the law sometime during their lifetime.
Anyone who has ever gone through the agony of standing before a judge on even
a speeding ticket or misdemeanor charge has a keen understanding of the severity of the American court system. Since 911 and
the introduction of the Patriot Acts I and II, the old concepts of innocence until proven guilty and due process have been
all but lost in our court systems.
It has been my observation as a working court reporter that those with the means
of hiring high-priced, smooth-talking, theatrical performers for lawyers have the best chance of convincing a jury of their
innocence. The poor must ride the system which usually means accepting a plea bargain between court-appointed lawyers and
prosecutors, and then bearing the wrath of a corrupt court.
The courts, the lawyers and the police have all been corrupted by greed. They
are a collective system of capture, hold and punish in a way that pays handsomely for their existence. Thus small-town judges
that are drawing salaries of $100,000 to $200,000 a year, work with prosecutors receiving up to $80,000 to $100,000, and police
officers receiving from $30,000 to $40,000 a year to feather their own nests.
There is an attitude among members of the law enforcement community that the arrested
person is guilty until proven innocent. They are treated like criminals, manacled at the time of the arrest, confined to crude
jail cells, and paraded before judges, lawyers and onlookers during court appearances wearing gaudy orange colored prison
garb. It is all designed to humiliate and embarrass the accused to a point where he/she will do anything to escape torment;
even going to the point of accepting a plea agreement. It does not matter if they may be innocent of any wrongdoing. Everybody
gets treated the same; like dogs.
Knowing how the system works, I believe many innocent people are locked behind
bars, many of them facing a lifetime of confinement and some looking at capital punishment for crimes not committed. I recently
watched a judge sentence a man with a good job, a wife and children to prison because he went hunting with friends. It seems
that ten years earlier this man was convicted on a plea agreement on a felony charge and his sentence included a lifetime
without owning and/or using firearms. He was caught when the car he was riding in had a flat tire and a police officer stopped
to run a check on the vehicle's occupants. A shotgun he owned was in the car.
The harsh new laws, many of them stemming from "get tough on crime" campaigns,
have had their effect on the prison system. The number of prisoners facing life sentences has doubled since 1992, and reached
four times the level a decade prior to that, statistics show.
Ironically, the statistics also show that levels of violent crimes have dropped
by a third in the last decade. But supporters of tough sentencing laws claim this is proof that prison works.
Sentencing Project notes that the politicians are ignoring real crime trends and
have stripped important discretionary powers from the judges. The report notes California’s "three strikes and you're
out" law is among the reasons for the jump in life sentences. Other states also have adopted similar sentencing guidelines.
Under the three-strikes law, a third felony conviction, no matter how minor, can
mean a mandatory sentence of life in prison.
In six states, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania and South Dakota,
a life sentence means just what it says. Felons go to prison and stay there until they die. There is no hope of parole.