Incarceration Nation

Life Sentences Are Slow Death Behind the Walls

Kim Brown Interviews Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report

By The Real News Network

U.S. incarceration levels remain so high because this country hands down longer sentences than anyplace else in the world. People sentenced to life serve twice as much time behind bars as they did in the 1980s. The Trump administration, not given to the token gestures of his predecessors, is not expected to change this.

Kim Brown: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown.

If someone is convicted of a crime, and their sentence includes life, with or without the possibility of parole, that person has likely been convicted of at least one serious felony. But, let’s further examine the phrase “life with the possibility of parole.” It implies that the person has the chance or the opportunity to one day leave jail, but do they end up serving longer sentences in terms of, right now, in the present, than they did in the past? The Sentencing Project, which is a Washington, D.C., based non-profit which works towards fair and effective criminal justice reform recently released a new report titled “Delaying A Second Chance: The Declining Prospects for Parole on Life Sentences,” and it is a very revealing report.

Joining us to further discuss this is Glen Ford. Glen is the co-founder and the Executive Editor of The Black Agenda Report. He’s also the author of the book titled The Big Lie: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of the Grenada Invasion.

Glen, I know that you took a particular interest in this new report from the Sentencing Project involving lifers. What about this report jumped out at you?

Glen Ford: Well, you know, it seems to be counterintuitive. We have all of this news, especially under the Obama administration, about how prison rates, incarceration rates, are going down, but we know that crime has been going down for about 20 years, and even the five percent decrease in the prison population that we’ve seen since 2009 doesn’t match in the least the really dramatic decreases over the past decades in crime. So what is keeping that incarceration rate so high?

We also have to point out that even though there’s a five percent general nation-wide decrease in incarceration, there are still some states that are putting at least as many people away in prison as they used to. So this is just a general curve, but there are lots of outlier states that have never heard the word “reform” when it comes to prisons.

But it’s been obvious to everyone that one factor, a huge factor, in keeping U.S. incarceration rates so high is that the United States keeps the people that they have in prison behind bars for far longer than any other country in the world. The United States is the home of draconian sentences, and it hasn’t come off of that curve at all.

The Sentencing Project, whose report is what you’re talking about, they did a study that focused specifically on lifers—and there are 160,000 people who are serving life prison terms in the United States, and 50,000 of them are serving life with no possibility of parole. That comes to one out of every nine people who are in prison in the U.S. are serving life.

This Sentencing Project Report found that even for those prisoners who are theoretically eligible for parole—that’s about 110,000 of the 160,000 lifers—their actual possibility of really getting out of jail, out of prison, is much smaller than people believe, and much smaller than it used to be.

A person who was convicted of murder back in the 1980s could expect to serve about eleven-and-a-half-years in prison before getting out on parole. A person who was convicted of the same crime in the 21st century can expect to be in prison for at least 23 years. And it is that huge gap—you’re basically holding two people if you want to run it statistically, instead of one person, over this period of time—that makes it so difficult even in those states that actually do want to bring the incarceration rate down, to do so.

We also have to note that many thousands of these folks who are serving life in prison were convicted as juveniles. And some of them are serving with no possibility of parole. And this has given the whole character of prison life in the United States a whole different twist where you have a very significant percentage of the inmates in middle age or even seniors, a kind of geriatric Gulag full of rather sick old men and women who have no real hope of ever getting out of prison, and that is what makes the mass incarceration rates so high.

All of the studies that have been done, without exception, show that people age out of criminal activity somewhere around middle age, and so these elderly prisoners don’t pose any threat to society. They do pose a great threat to society’s pocketbooks, however, because they cost a whole lot even with the very inadequate medical attention that prisons provide. They cost a whole lot more than holding young people in prison.

Kim Brown: And the interesting thing, Glen, about this new report—I mean, it references some very startling statistics including the number of people serving life sentences has quadrupled since 1984, as you mentioned—and I know we remember the Reagan years as being very tough on crime, so it seems as though not only have states but the federal government has also become tougher on crime themselves with the average person who was serving time for a murder conviction, the amount of time that they serve nearly doubled from 11.6 years for those paroled in the 1980s to 23.2 years for those paroled in 2013. That’s according to their report from the Sentencing Project.

So it seems as though like now we’re holding people in jail longer, and for people who do get life sentences with the possibility of parole, they’re serving nearly twice as many years as they were during the Reagan years. What gives? To what do you attribute that?

Glen Ford: We have a whole generation of politicians who run for office on the promise that they’re going to lock folks up in jail and throw away the key. That is the source of the problem—the politicians who pass these laws, the politicians who run for judgeships and for sheriff in these localities. And it’s interesting—these draconian sentences for people who get life or something close to life don’t just affect those inmates, because these are considered to be anchor kind of sentences, so that if a person who’s convicted of murder can now expect to spend 25 or 30 years in prison, even if they have theoretically a chance at parole, that means that the bar has been set high for other folks, as well. And so, people who would’ve expected to get maybe three or four years for a drug conviction back in the ’80s, may get five or ten for a drug conviction, because the scale has been altered.

So it’s not just the long sentences, well, the lifetime sentences that are the problem, but that other, lesser crime sentences, tend to be longer, too, and parole boards tend not to let folks out until they’ve served a very long period of time because that bar is so high.

Kim Brown: Indeed. And when we talk about what to do about this issue, Glen, because criminal justice reform at least was a hot topic of the previous administration of President Barack Obama, who I believe commuted the sentences of about a thousand federal inmates, most of whom were non-violent offenders, most of whom had drug convictions, but now it’s a whole new ball game. We have Donald Trump sitting in the White House, and appointed Senator Jeff Sessions to be his Attorney General at the Department of Justice.

So, where do we see this issue going as we move along into at least the early part of the first term of the Trump administration?

Glen Ford: Well, I’d like to say I agree with you, except I would predict that what Trump will do is deprive us of any tokenisms, which is what Barack Obama gave us. Trump won’t even be entertaining those kinds of token measures. But there is really, and has been for some time, a solid kind of coalition of rather conservative Republicans and Democrats in Congress that, for what they say are fiscal reasons, that is to save money, have been studying and moving very, very slowly on prison reform for some time—and I don’t think that their activity will slow up. We just won’t have anything even a tokenist approach to prison reform in the White House...

And, you know, there should be no discussion of prisons and mass incarceration without talking about brother Sundiata Acoli, who was a member of the Black Panther Party. He’s been in prison in New Jersey since the 1970s. He was eligible for parole in the ’90s, but didn’t get it. He finally came up for parole and was denied just a couple of weeks ago, and told by the parole board to come back in 15 years. Well, Sundiata Acoli is 80 years old. In 15 years, he’ll be 95 years old. I think this speaks volumes to what parole boards in New Jersey and much of the rest of the country are really about. They’re not there to evaluate honestly whether people should have a chance at freedom before they die. They’re there to keep people in prison to make a political statement.

Kim Brown: Indeed. If you want to see this report in its entirety see, “Delaying a Second Chance: The Declining Prospects for Parole on Life Sentences.”1

Black Agenda Report, February 7, 2017