You Could Spend Life In Jail for Stealing a Jacket

Picture this nightmare scenario: You have a 2-year-old kid who needs a very expensive bone-marrow transplant to save his life. You manage to raise $50,000 through community fundraisers, but that's still not even close to the amount of money you need. You find a way to make some cash, quickly — you'll transport some meth in your truck. It's dumb, it's a risk, but you have a child that's going to die; clearly, it's worth it. But you're caught, and you go to prison. Seventeen years later, you're still in jail, and you're going to be there for a long, long time — the rest of your life, in fact.

This is precisely Dicky Joe Jackson's situation. In spite of the federal prosecutor in the case admitting that there was "no indication that Mr. Jackson was violent, that he was any sort of large-scale narcotics trafficker, or that he committed his crimes for any reason other than to get money to care for his gravely ill child,” Jackson is serving life in prison. And he's not alone.

A terrifying new study by the American Civil Liberties Union has found that over 3,200 people across the U.S. are serving life terms without parole for nonviolent offenses, including possessing a crack pipe, shoplifting a $159 jacket, and being the middleman in the sale of $10 dollars of weed.

Another guy, Anthony Jackson, stole a wallet from a Myrtle Beach hotel room, pretended to be a security guard and ran away. He was arrested when he tried to use the stolen credit card to buy some pancakes. Because his court-appointed attorney reportedly didn't prepare for his trial, Jackson chose a risky route and decided to represent himself. Thanks to his own inexperience in court, two priors for burglary and South Carolina's unforgiving three-strikes law, Jackson, who was 44 when was caught, in now also serving life without parole. "I felt hurt and afraid [of] the ending of life," Jackson said.

Here's where it gets even more depressing. According to the report, a shocking 65 percent of the prisoners are African-American. Eighteen percent are white, and 16 percent are Latino — what the ACLU has called "evidence of extreme racial disparities." Over half (63 percent, to be precise) of the life-without-parole sentences are accounted for by federal courts — the rest of the prisoners are mostly scattered between Louisiana, which holds over 400, Florida, and Alabama. South Carolina holds 88 life-without-parole prisoners and Mississippi holds 93.

"The people profiled in our report are an extreme example of the millions of lives ruined by the persistent ratcheting up of our sentencing laws over the last forty years," said the deputy legal director of the ACLU. "We must change our sentencing practices to make our justice system smart, fair, and humane. It's time to undo the damage wrought by four decades of the War on Drugs and 'tough-on-crime' attitudes."

According to the report, much of the sentencing was due to the fact that certain states' "three-strikes" laws forced judges into issuing the harshest possible punishment barring the death penalty — for over 80 percent of those in the study, a life-without-parole sentence was compulsory. One Federal District judge who was compelled to give a drug-addict a life sentence for selling small amounts of crack cocaine called the sentencing "a travesty," adding: "I don’t agree with it, either. And I want the world and the record to be clear on that. This is just silly. But as I say, I don’t have any choice."

Said Jennifer Turner, author of the ACLU report:

"These sentences are really symptomatic of the larger problem of excessive sentencing in this country. Many, many, many more thousands of people are serving excessive sentences that are disproportionate to their crimes. And they’re all the result of the 40-year war on drugs and tough-on-crime policies, such as mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws. We simply need to repeal the laws that led to these sentences. And with growing national consensus across both sides of the political aisle that mandatory minimum sentences, for instance, are a travesty of justice, this is quite possible. There have been two bipartisan bills introduced in Congress that would somewhat reduce the reach of mandatory minimum sentencing laws."

Consider the fact that today, 58 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization and over 45 percent of Americans don't think a person should even lose their job for smoking weed (even if it's illegal in the state). In spite of this, drug arrests have tripled over the last 25 years. In 2010, 1.63 million Americans were arrested — forty-six percent of these arrests were for marijuana possession alone. Now consider the fact that eighty percent of the 3,200 imprisoned for life were charged with drug-related convictions. The gap between policy and people has always been wide, but now, it's threatening to engulf a whole generation.

A man who transported meth to save his dying baby had to divorce his wife of nearly twenty years so that she could move on with her life, because the rest of his was going to be spent in a prison cell. The icing on the cake? We taxpayers are spending roughly $1.8 billion on keeping him, and others like him, in jail.

Forget President Obama's so-called credibility problems over healthcare reforms. There are bigger fish to fry.