Percent of Black men serving life or life without parole is staggeringBy Frederick H. Lowe The NorthStar News & Analysis | Last updated: Sep 26, 2013 - 1:19:26 PM
Two factors partly explain the reason why Black men are 38 percent of the state- and federal-prison population, larger than the White inmate population at 35 percent and the Hispanic prison population at 21 percent, said Dr. Ashley Nellis, author of the report and senior research associate at The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that seeks alternatives to prison sentences.
Dr. Nellis’ study reported that in 2012, 159,520 individuals were serving life sentences, and 47.2 percent or 75,267 were Black men. Those figures, however, are national numbers. In some states, the numbers are much higher.
In Maryland, Blacks are 77.4 percent of the lifer population. In Georgia, Blacks are 72 percent of the lifer population. In Mississippi, Blacks are 71.5 percent of the lifer population and in the federal prison system, Blacks are 62.3 percent of the lifer population.
Nearly 60 percent of Black men are serving life without parole.
Some 50,000 individuals in 2012 were serving life without parole (LWOP), and Blacks comprised 58 percent or 26,962 of those inmates.
In some states, however, Blacks are sentenced to life without parole at extremely high rates.
In Alabama, 68.2 percent of life without parole inmates were Black. In Georgia, 73.2 percent were Black; in Illinois, 66.8 percent were Black; in Louisiana, 73.4 percent were Black; in Michigan, 67.5 percent are Black; in Mississippi, 70.5 percent were Black and in South Carolina, 67.3 percent are Black.
“The difference between life and life without parole is that a person who is serving life may eventually leave prison. A person who is serving life without parole will never leave prison unless DNA evidence acquits him of the crime.
Most Blacks who are sentenced to life without parole are men. Only 3 percent of Black women have been sentenced to serve life without parole, Dr. Nellis said.
Life without parole is very expensive. As an inmate ages and physical ailments develop, his medical bills can cost taxpayers $100,000 to $150,000 annually, Dr. Nellis said.
The study reported that 64.3 percent were serving life for homicide; 13.7 percent for sexual assault/rape; 14.1 percent for aggravated assault/robbery/kidnapping; 2.0 percent for a drug offense; 4.0 percent for a property offense and 2.0 percent for other offenses.
“It is notable that more than 10,000 people serving life sentences have been convicted of a nonviolent crime, including more than 2,500 for a drug offense and 5,400 for a property crime,” Dr. Nellis wrote.
So why are so many Black men either serving life or life without parole?
“There is harsher treatment of Black men within the judicial system from the point of arrest through the entire process,” Dr. Nellis said. “At some point, Whites receive a modification in their arrest or their sentence. Black men receive subpar legal representation and they are arrested for many more crimes than Whites except white-collar and sex-related crimes.”
States began enacting life without parole sentences from 1972 to 1976 when the U.S. Supreme Court banned the death penalty. Before the ban, only 7 states had life without parole statutes. They were Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and West Virginia.
“The upward creep of life sentences has accelerated in recent decades as an element of the tough-on-crime political environment that began in 1980s,” Dr. Nellis wrote. “The idea of whole-life prison sentences easily won approval in a period of growing skepticism about the value of rehabilitation.”