Thursday, July 23, 2009

Expanding ranks of Texas lifers part of national trend

There's been lots of good discussion, some of it rounded up by Doc Berman here, of a new report from the Sentencing Project titled "No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America" (pdf), so I thought I'd pull out a few highlights and Texas specifics:

Texas has both life sentences which are eligible for parole (most of them) and also life without parole (LWOP). The latter in Texas is only a sentencing option in capital murder cases and as of 2008, just 71 Texans had received LWOP sentences, according to the report, while 8,558 offenders (6.1% of TDCJ's total inmate population) were serving life sentences in Texas adult prisons but will ultimately be eligible for parole. "However," as the Sentencing Project correctly notes, "eligibility does not equate to release and, owing to the reticence of review boards and governors, it has become increasingly difficult for persons serving a life sentence to be released on parole."

Six states and the federal government have only LWOP sentences, says the Sentencing Project. The total number of people nationally serving life sentences quadrupled in the last 25 years, with just 34,000 total prisoners serving life sentences in 1984 and more than 140,000 in 2008.

Among Texas lifers, 43.5% are black, according to the report, 33.8% are white, and 22.0% are Hispanic. There are 422 juveniles mixed into the totals for Texas lifers - about one in 20 out of all life sentences. Three of those juveniles are sentenced to life without parole, but going forward that penalty was abolished for juveniles by the 81st Texas Legislature. Out of those 422, thirteen juvenile girls are serving life sentences.

Notably, California uses life sentences much more liberally than Texas, particularly for juveniles but really for everybody. In a prison system just a little larger than ours (serving a population that's 60% greater, it should be added), a whopping 20% of all California prisoners are serving life sentences compared to just 6.1% in Texas. Of the more than 34,000 lifers in California, 10.8% are in for LWOP.

Does anyone wonder why California is cutting prisoners loose because it can't afford to incarcerate them all?

RELATED: Many states considering early release of prisoners.

MORE: Diane Jennings at the Dallas News Crime Blog offers up this helpful background:
In 1998, after Texas got "tough on crime," mandating minimum sentences of 30 years before becoming eligible for parole on a life sentence, and 40 years in capital murder cases, my colleague Bruce Tomaso and I wondered how many inmates had actually done that much flat time. We were startled to learn that Texas and other states had little experience with long term incarceration: At that time, 11 Texas inmates, out of a prison population of 143,000, had actually served 30 years flat, but the state was then sending 400 new lifers a year to prison.


Charlie O said...

I believe California's large lifer population is due to the rather stupid and ill thought out (fiscally) "three-strikes" law. "Get tough" politicians never tell the electorate the financial consequences of such legislation and policies.

Anonymous said...

"... it has become increasingly difficult for prisoners serving a life sentence to be released on parole?" Well, duh!!! If life really meant life, it should be impossible!

I assume the next shoe to drop will be the advancement of a money saving argument in favor of allowing parole eligibilty for LWOP capital murderers who have "aged out." Boy, it sure didn't take long for that camel to move in after he got his nose under the tent!

sunray's wench said...

11.26 ~ but the law specifically states that those inmates serving a life sentence are eligible for parole once they have served half (or it could be 35 or 50 years, I'm not 100% sure). Your elected representitives say that those inmates could be released on parole.

The BPP are not accountable to anyone, not even the elected representitives, and as such they decide the fate of those inmates - without being elected by the society they claim to serve.

California is approaching a time when the only inmates they have left in prison are the ones doing LWOP. Then where do they start saving money?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Charlie O, I think that's right about the 3-strikes law, which was also emphasized in the SP report.

To 11:26 who wrote "If life really meant life" ... except it doesn't. That's a euphemism, a legal term of art not to be confused with LWOP. Under Texas law it means parole eligible (with good time) after thirty years.

"the next shoe to drop will be the advancement of a money saving argument"

Not necessarily. Especially if those supportive of more incarceration volunteer to have their taxes raised to pay for more prisons. But elected officials in California, at least, believe the public won't accept that choice, so they have to release some of their inmates.

Independent Accountant said...

There was an article about this in the NY Times today: