The sentencing-reform movement is split over how to address prisoners who have been convicted of violent crimes, says the New York Times. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union favor a swift 50 percent reduction in prison populations, while conservative prison reform organizations like Right on Crime prioritize the release of nonviolent offenders and worry that releasing others could backfire and reduce public support.
Nonviolent drug offenders make up only about 17 percent of state prison inmates, while violent offenders make up more than 50 percent. Nearly 160,000 prisoners are serving life sentences. The number of such inmates has more than quadrupled since 1984, and now about one in nine prison inmates is serving a life term.
“People are celebrating the stabilization of the prison population in recent years, but the scale of mass incarceration is so substantial that meaningful reduction is not going to happen by tinkering around the edges,” said Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, which advocates changes in sentencing policy.
The Times uses as an example Lenny Singleton of Virginia. To fuel a crack habit in 1995, he walked into 13 stores over eight days and either distracted a clerk or pretended to have a concealed gun before stealing from the cash register. Singleton, 28 at the time, pleaded guilty to robbery. A confluence of factors worked against him, including the particularly hard-nosed judge who sentenced him and the zero-tolerance ethos of the time against users of crack cocaine. His sentence was two life terms, plus 100 years, with no possibility for parole.
Singleton is seeking a pardon, claiming inadequate legal representation. He says, “I was out of my mind on drugs, but I wasn’t going to hurt anybody,” he said. “I was just after the money.”