Thousands of people across America are serving life sentences for relatively minor crimes. Of those, 270 are in Florida prisons, serving life after committing nonviolent crimes.
John Montgomery of Pensacola said that just before he committed armed robbery -- which landed him in prison for the rest of his life -- he sought treatment for a mental illness, but the hospital was full and rejected him.
His case was among hundreds of others featured in a new study, A living death: Sentenced to die behind bars for what? released last week by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Nationwide, some 3,278 people have been sentenced to spend life behind bars for committing nonviolent crimes, the ACLU study claims.
Among the most notable cases is Patrick Matthews, now 25, who was sentenced to life three years ago for riding with his friend in a truck filled with stolen goods. Matthews had no violent criminal history and had never set foot in a jail cell.
One of the judges who reviewed his appeal said he didnt believe that the ends of justice are met by a mandatory sentence, but that the law is the law and a previous conviction of unarmed burglary when he was 17 required a life sentence.
Other cases are even more disheartening, including life sentences for stealing a $159 jacket, being the middleman in a $10 marijuana deal, muling drugs for an abusive boyfriend and taking a wallet from a hotel room. The report says that many of those convicted suffered from mental illness, drug dependency or dire economic situations when the crimes were committed.
The punishments that these people received are grotesquely disproportionate to the crimes they committed, said Jennifer Turner, a researcher with the ACLU and author of the report. In a humane society, we can hold individuals accountable for drug offenses and property crimes without throwing away the key.
The ACLU estimates that of the 3,278 people incarcerated for life terms, most were sentenced under mandatory sentencing policies, including laws requiring repeat offenders to be imprisoned for life. Seventy-nine percent were convicted of nonviolent crimes related to drugs, such as possession or distribution, and 20 percent were nonviolent property crimes, like theft.
The majority of the life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent crimes surveyed by the ACLU were mandatory under sentencing laws.
While habitual offender laws, statutory penalty enhancements and other mandates that establish sentencing rules leave judges with little wiggle room, prosecutors wield immense power over defendants fates.
The decision of whether to invoke legislated sentencing laws in the prosecution of criminals -- ones that trigger a life-without-parole sentence -- is at the discretion of the prosecutor. In case after case reviewed by the ACLU, the sentencing judges openly disagreed with the sentencing but had no power to override the prosecutors decision.
The people shown in the report are an extreme example of the millions of lives blighted by the persistence in increasing sentencing laws in the last 40 years, said Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director of the ACLU. We must change our sentencing practices to turn our justice system into one intelligent, just and humane. Its time to repair the damage caused by four decades of drug war and tough on crime attitudes.
Florida Watchdog called members of the Florida Senate Judiciary Committee, but calls for comment were not returned.
Dicky Joe Jackson has already served 17 years of his life-without-parole sentence. He was convicted of transportation and sale of methamphetamine, which he said he did to pay for a life-saving bone marrow transplant and other medical treatments for his son.
The ACLU estimates taxpayers will spend more than half a million dollars to keep Jackson in jail for life, and theyll spend another $1.8 billion to keep the other 3,278 in jail over the course of their lives.
Contact Marianela Toledo en Marianela.Toledo@FloridaWatchdog.org twitter @mtoledoreporter.