A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses

Life in prison without a chance of parole is, short of execution, the harshest imaginable punishment. Life without parole (LWOP) is permanent removal from society with no chance of reentry, no hope of freedom. One should expect the American criminal justice system to condemn someone to die in prison only for the most serious offenses.

Yet across the country, thousands of people are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for nonviolent crimes as petty as siphoning gasoline from an 18-wheeler, shoplifting three belts, breaking into a parked car and stealing a woman’s bagged lunch, or possessing a bottle cap smeared with heroin residue. In their cruelty and harshness, these sentences defy common sense. They are grotesquely out of proportion to the conduct they seek to punish. They offend the principle that all people have the right to be treated with humanity and respect for their inherent dignity.

This report documents the thousands of lives ruined and families destroyed by sentencing people to die behind bars for nonviolent offenses, and includes detailed case studies of 110 such people. It also includes a detailed fiscal analysis tallying the $1.784 billion cost to taxpayers to keep the 3,278 prisoners currently serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses incarcerated for the rest of their lives.

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