These People Are Spending Their Lives in Prison for Nonviolent Crimes

Post Date: November 14, 2013

(Huffington Post) — Robert Booker admits that he didn’t really need the money he got from drug dealing. He grew up in a two-parent, middle-class family in Detroit in the 1970s, and his job as a lifeguard for the city’s parks department paid “good money.” But the drug business paid more, and by the late 1980s nearly all of his friends were showing up to the pool with new cars and expensive sneakers. “I was smarter than the average cat, and I was like, ‘If they could do it, I could do it easy,'” Booker said by phone on Monday from the Federal Correctional Institution in Schuylkill, Pa. “I left lifeguarding and started hanging around.”

Twenty-five years later, at 47 years old, Booker is two decades deep into a life sentence in federal prison for three related, nonviolent drug crimes: possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute crack cocaine, and operating a “crack distribution house.” Although a trial judge initially sentenced him to 20 years in prison, the prosecutor filed two separate appeals, ultimately triggering an automatic sentencing mechanism that forced a federal judge to send Booker to prison for the rest of his life.

Booker is one of more than 100 prisoners featured in an extensive new report from the American Civil Liberties Union on the rise of life sentences without the possibility of parole — the harshest penalty faced by defendants in the American criminal justice system apart from death. Many such inmates are there “off the laws,” as Booker put it, meaning they were incarcerated because of drug laws and not because they committed acts of violence. The report calculates that 3,278 prisoners were serving life without parole for drug, property and other nonviolent crimes as of 2012, comprising about 6 percent of the total life-without-parole, or LWOP, population.  Read more