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Alexandra Ringe, 212-549-2666, email@example.com
In the first-ever study of people serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses in the United States, the ACLU found that at least 3,278 prisoners fit this category in federal and state prisons combined.
"A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses" features key statistics about these prisoners, an analysis of the laws that produced their sentences, and case studies of 110 men and women serving these sentences. Of the 3,278 prisoners, 79% were convicted of nonviolent, drug-related crimes such as possession or distribution; 20% of nonviolent property crimes like theft.
"The punishments these people received are grotesquely out of proportion to the crimes they committed," said Jennifer Turner, ACLU Human Rights Researcher and author of the report. "In a humane society, we can hold people accountable for drug and property crimes without throwing away the key."
The ACLU estimates that, of the 3,278 serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses, 65% are Black, 18% are white, and 16% percent are Latino, evidence of extreme racial disparities. Of the 3,278, most were sentenced under mandatory sentencing policies, including mandatory minimums and habitual offender laws that required them to be incarcerated until they die.
"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 Vanita Gupta, 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."
Douglas Ray Dunkins Jr., who has served 22 years so far, told the ACLU, "It's devastating, horrible, not being around to see [my children] graduate and go to school." Dicky Joe Jackson, who has served 17 years, said, "I would rather have had a death sentence than a life sentence."
The federal courts account for 63% of the 3,278 life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent offenses. The remaining prisoners are in Louisiana (429 prisoners), Florida (270), Alabama (244), Mississippi (93), South Carolina (88), Oklahoma (49), Georgia (20), Illinois (10), and Missouri (1). The ACLU estimates that federal and state taxpayers spend $1.8 billion keeping these people in prison for life instead of more appropriate terms.
In addition to interviews, correspondence, and a survey of hundreds of prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses, the ACLU based "A Living Death" on court records, a prisoner survey, and data from the United States Sentencing Commission, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and state Departments of Corrections obtained through Freedom of Information Act and open records requests.
"A Living Death" features comments from the prisoners' family members, and in multiple instances, prisoners' sentencing judges express frustration and outrage at the severity of the punishment the law required. Judge Milton I. Shadur told Rudy Martinez as he sentenced Martinez to life without parole: "[F]airness has departed from the system."
The report includes recommendations to federal and state governments for changes in sentencing and clemency. The proposed policy reforms would help bring balance back to sentencing--crucial steps to reduce our nation's dependence on incarceration.
"We must change the laws that have led to such unconscionable sentences," said Turner. "For those now serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses, President Obama and state governors must step in and reduce their sentences. To do nothing is a failure of justice."
The ACLU has placed ads online and in print to raise public awareness of the prisoners serving life-without-parole for nonviolent offenses and the larger problem of mass incarceration. Featuring photographs of six prisoners profiled in "A Living Death," the ads will appear multiple times in print and online in such national outlets as Jet, the Nation, the New York Times, USA Today, and the Washington Post.
The report is available here: www.aclu.org/fairandsmart
The American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920 and is our nation's guardian of liberty. The ACLU works in the courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.(212) 549-2666
"I'm not happy with some of the things I'm hearing about," the Washington Democrat said, stressing that still needs to see legislative text.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal said Sunday that the Biden White House should be concerned about securing the Congressional Progressive Caucus' support for the newly announced debt ceiling agreement, given that the deal includes work requirements for aid programs and other provisions sure to infuriate the Democratic Party's left flank.
Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), toldCNN she is "not happy with some of the things" she's hearing about the tentative agreement but emphasized that she still needs to see legislative text, which is expected to be released Sunday afternoon.
Asked whether the White House and Democratic leaders still have to worry about whether the CPC—which has 101 members in the House—will support the final agreement, Jayapal responded, "Yes, they have to worry."
While noting that the spending cuts in the deal aren't nearly as large as the House GOP wanted, Jayapal raised concerns about the new work requirements for some recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
The White House-GOP agreement would reportedly impose work requirements on adult SNAP recipients who are up to 54 years old and have no children—up from the current age ceiling of 49. Under current law, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, "non-elderly adults without children in their homes can receive benefits for only three months every three years, unless they are working at least 20 hours a week or can document they are unable to work."
The broadening of work requirements would sunset in 2030, according to the White House, and SNAP eligibility would be expanded for veterans and people who are homeless.
Jayapal said Sunday that SNAP work requirements are "absolutely terrible policy," adding that "we have seen reams of data that show that, when you put these work requirements in, they're really just administrative red tape that prevent the people who need help from getting help."
"I told the president that directly when he called me last week on Wednesday that this is saying to poor people and people who are in need that we don't trust them," Jayapal said, noting that people on SNAP receive an average of $6 per day in benefits. "I think it is really unfortunate that the president opened the door to this."
\u201cWork requirements are bad policy. They don\u2019t reduce spending, they create administrative burdens, and they simply don\u2019t work.\n\nThe fact that this is a GOP priority is cruel, and every American should know what they\u2019re trying to do to poor and working families.\u201d— Rep. Pramila Jayapal (@Rep. Pramila Jayapal) 1685284434
Outside advocates and economists have vocally condemned the debt ceiling agreement's real-term spending cuts, attacks on aid programs such as SNAP and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and cuts to IRS funding, but progressive lawmakers have been largely quiet since details of the tentative deal began emerging Saturday night.
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) wrote in a "Dear Colleague" letter on Sunday that Republicans will release legislative text at some point in the afternoon and top Biden administration officials will brief the Democratic caucus on the deal at 5:00 pm ET.
Politicoreported Sunday that "Democrats are pissed that Republicans got a briefing on the deal last night—and that they won't get the same until 5:00 pm tonight."
One unnamed senior Democrat told Politico that rank-and-file lawmakers are "furious that they will learn about [the details of the deal] from Republicans and Sunday talk shows."
Some members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, meanwhile, have responded angrily to the tentative agreement, which would lift the debt ceiling until January 1, 2025 and put spending caps in place for 2024 and 2025.
Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) called the deal "insanity," complaining that it wouldn't cut spending aggressively enough.
During a press briefing Sunday morning, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) downplayed the Freedom Caucus outrage, saying he's confident that a majority of House Republicans will vote for the agreement.
The Treasury Department warned Friday that the U.S. government will run out of money to pay its obligations on June 5 unless Congress lifts the debt ceiling.
"For no real reason at all, hungry people are set to lose food while tax cheats get a free pass."
The text of the legislation, titled the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023, is now available here.
Progressive economists and advocates warned that the tentative debt ceiling agreement reached Saturday by the White House and Republican leaders would needlessly gash nutrition aid, rental assistance, education programs, and more—all while making it easier for the wealthy to avoid taxes.
The deal, which now must win the support of both chambers of Congress, reportedly includes two years of caps on non-military federal spending, sparing a Pentagon budget replete with staggering waste and abuse.
The Associated Pressreported that the deal "would hold spending flat for 2024 and increase it by 1% for 2025," not keeping pace with inflation.
The agreement would also impose new work requirements on some recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) while scaling back recently approved IRS funding, a gift to rich tax cheats.
In exchange for the spending cuts and work requirements, Republican leaders have agreed to lift the debt ceiling until January 1, 2025—a tradeoff that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is pitching as a victory to his caucus, which includes far-right members who have demanded more aggressive austerity.
President Joe Biden, for his part, called the deal "a compromise, which means not everyone gets what they want."
"After inflation eats its share, flat funding will result in fewer households accessing rental assistance, fewer kids in Head Start, and fewer services for seniors."
Lindsay Owens, executive director of the Groundwork Collaborative, said in a statement Saturday night that "this is a punishing deal made worse only by the fact that there was no reason for President Biden to negotiate with Speaker McCarthy over whether or not the United States government should pay its bills," alluding to the president's executive authority.
"After inflation eats its share, flat funding will result in fewer households accessing rental assistance, fewer kids in Head Start, and fewer services for seniors," said Owens. "The deal represents the worst of conservative budget ideology; it cuts investments in workers and families, adds onerous and wasteful new hurdles for families in need of support, and protects the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations from paying their fair share in taxes."
The agreement comes days before the U.S. is, according to the Treasury Department, set to run out of money to pay its obligations, imperiling Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid payments and potentially hurling the entire global economy into chaos.
House Republicans have leveraged those alarming possibilities to secure painful federal spending cuts and aid program changes that could leave more people hungry, sick, and unable to afford housing, critics said.
"For no real reason at all, hungry people are set to lose food while tax cheats get a free pass," wrote Angela Hanks, chief of programs at Demos.
While legislative text has not yet been released, the deal would reportedly impose work requirements on adult SNAP recipients without dependents up to the age of 54, increasing the current age limit of 49. Policy analysts and anti-hunger activists have long decried SNAP time limits and work requirements as immoral and ineffective at boosting employment. (Most adult SNAP recipients already work.)
"The SNAP changes are nominally extending work requirements to ages 50 to 54. In reality, especially as the new rule is implemented, this is just an indiscriminate cull of a bunch of 50- to 54-year-olds from SNAP who won't realize there are new forms they need to fill out," said Matt Bruenig, founder of the People's Policy Project.
Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, wrote on Twitter that the agreement is "cruel and shortsighted," pointing to the work requirements and real-term cuts to rental assistance "during an already worsening homelessness crisis."
"House Rs held our nation's lowest-income people hostage in exchange for lifting the debt ceiling," Yentel continued. "The debt ceiling 'deal' could lead to tens of thousands of families losing rental assistance... Expanding ineffective work requirements and putting time limits on food assistance adds salt to the wound, further harming some of the lowest-income and most marginalized people in our country."
The White House and Republican leaders also reportedly agreed to some permitting reforms that climate groups have slammed as a boon for the fossil fuel industry. According toThe New York Times, the agreement "includes measures meant to speed environmental reviews of certain energy projects," though the scope of the changes is not yet clear.
And while the deal doesn't appear to include a repeal of Biden's student debt cancellation plan—which is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court—it does reportedly contain a provision that would cement the end of the student loan repayment pause, drawing fury from debt relief campaigners.
\u201cResuming student debt payments will crush working families and is simply bad policy\u2014but agreeing to codify the pause\u2019s end into law before the Supreme Court decides on broad-scale relief is criminal.\u201d— The Debt Collective \ud83d\udfe5 (@The Debt Collective \ud83d\udfe5) 1685241461
The deal must now get through Congress, a difficult task given potentially significant opposition from progressive lawmakers who are against attacks on aid programs and Republicans who want steeper cuts.
As the Times reported, "Lawmakers in the House Freedom Caucus were privately pillorying the deal on Saturday night, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus had already begun to fume about it even before negotiators finalized the agreement."
Amy Hanauer, executive director of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, said Sunday that "it's a relief to see that congressional leaders and the president have come to an agreement to raise the debt limit and avert an economic disaster."
"But by instituting work requirements for critical assistance programs and rescinding important funding to crack down on wealthy tax cheats, this deal will rig the economy even more in favor of the most well-off Americans while failing to fix the real structural problems that led to the current debt crisis in the first place," said Hanauer. "The deal avoids the elephant in the room: it includes no new revenues even though tax cuts of the past few decades were a primary driver of deficit growth."
"And next up, many Republican lawmakers want to double down on tax cuts by pushing through many more tax cuts that would most help wealthy families and corporations," Hanauer added. "They should do the opposite."
"The GOP claims doing so is necessary in the interest of $11 billion in deficit reduction. But at the same time, they have doubled down on tax cuts skewed to the rich and special interests."
The Biden White House late Friday accused Republicans of attempting to "take food out of the mouths of hungry Americans" by imposing new work requirements on recipients of federal nutrition assistance, a public rebuke of the GOP that came as negotiators worked to finalize a debt ceiling agreement.
Additional work requirements appear to be among the final sticking points in the time-sensitive talks, with the GOP insisting on their inclusion in any agreement to raise the debt limit.
In a statement Friday night, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said the GOP's proposed work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are "designed to tie the most vulnerable up in bureaucratic paperwork" and "have shown no benefit for bringing more people into the workforce."
"The GOP claims doing so is necessary in the interest of $11 billion in deficit reduction," said Bates. "But at the same time, they have doubled down on tax cuts skewed to the rich and special interests that would add $3.5 trillion to our debt."
House Republicans have demanded new work requirements for recipients of SNAP, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—many of whom already work.
Asked Friday whether the GOP would be willing to drop its push for work requirements, Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.)—the party's lead negotiator—said, "Hell no."
"Hell no," he repeated. "Not a chance."
The White House has spoken out against new work requirements for SNAP and Medicaid, but it's unclear whether it opposes fresh work mandates for TANF, which replaced the more generous Aid to Families With Dependent Children program under the Clinton welfare reform law that Biden supported as a senator.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, welcomed the White House's statement against SNAP work requirements, which analysts say could strip food aid from millions of people amid a worsening hunger crisis.
"The president is calling out MAGA GOP hypocrisy of refusing to raise the debt ceiling so the economy doesn't crash simply to take food from hungry people," Jayapal tweeted Saturday. "When you count admin[istrative] costs of bureaucratic red tape, this would produce ZERO savings. Isn't and has never been about saving money."
The White House issued its statement amid growing progressive concerns over the concessions the Biden administration has reportedly granted to GOP hostage-takers.
On Friday, watchdogs, Democratic lawmakers, and policy analysts responded with outrage to reports that the Biden White House is leaning toward accepting Republicans' demand for IRS funding cuts—a giveaway to rich tax cheats.
Progressives have also voiced alarm over reports that the emerging debt ceiling deal includes a two-year cap on non-military federal spending, which would result in cuts to key domestic programs.
"Any deal is a disaster since most government departments and agencies are currently severely underfunded," warned Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project.