"We're sentencing people to die in prison — and that's what life without parole is — when they haven't even committed a violent crime," said Susan Watson, director of the ACLU of Alabama.
A report from the civil liberties group, which was released to the press earlier this week, says at least 3,278 people nationwide are facing life sentences with no possibility of release for crimes that involved no physical injury to a victim. Some received life sentences for crimes as minor as shoplifting or siphoning gas from a vehicle, the report says.
ACLU researchers counted non-violent offenders serving life in the federal prison system and in the nine states that responded to the group's request for information. Nearly two-thirds of the inmates were in federal prisons, most of them for drug violations.
In the states, "three-strikes" laws — passed mostly in the 1980s and 1990s to get repeat felony offenders off the streets — were the main reason people were locked up permanently for nonviolent offenses.
Alabama prisons held 244 of those offenders, ACLU officials say. That includes 171 people locked up for property crimes, 49 imprisoned for drug crimes and 24 in prison for other offenses.
Some of those drug crimes, Watson said, were committed by first-time offenders who were arrested in a state that allows life imprisonment in some drug cases.
"We should be treating these people, not locking them up," Watson said.
Alabama Sentencing Commission director Bennet Wright said the numbers are more complicated than the ACLU report makes them seem.
"A great deal of this depends on what you consider to be non-violent," Wright said.
The Sentencing Commission was formed in 1998 to manage what, even then, was considered an overcrowding problem in Alabama's prisons. There are more than 25,000 people currently housed in Alabama prisons built for about 13,000, with thousands more in other forms of custody, including county jails.
The commission has been trying to whittle the prison population down, while keeping violent offenders behind bars.
Wright said the only way someone could get life in prison for a drug offense alone is by being convicted of drug trafficking — something that state lawmakers have declared should be considered a violent crime.
Wright noted that to be convicted under the state’s habitual offender law, a person would have to been convicted of at least one violent Class A felony. Subsequent felonies, even if they were non-violent, would cause the habitual offender statute to kick in, making life without parole a possibility.
The ACLU report cited examples of people sentenced to life without parole in other states for crimes as minor as possessing stolen wrenches or shoplifting three belts from a department store. There were no such anecdotes from Alabama. ACLU researcher Jennifer Turner said the state didn’t provide detailed information on life-without-parole inmates, despite requests from the organization. Turner said the group pulled their data from Department of Corrections reports and called staffers to determine whether various offenses were violent or nonviolent.
In an email to The Star, department spokesman Brian Corbett said the staff in the department’s research division didn’t recall the request. He referred questions about the state’s definition of violent crime to Wright.
ACLU officials say African-Americans are more likely to get life without parole for nonviolent offenses. Sixty-five percent of nonviolent offenders serving life without parole were black, the report said, while 18 percent were white and 16 percent were Latino. Some Southern states had even sharper disparities, but there were no estimates for Alabama.
Turner said the ACLU requested a racial breakdown, but state officials didn’t supply it.
In all, there were 1,516 people serving life without parole in Alabama in June, the most recent month for which the Department of Corrections has numbers. Another 3,970 are serving simple life sentences, which allow the possibility of parole after 15 years.
Those inmates could become a problem for the system as they get older. More than 5,000 of Alabama’s current inmates are over the age of 50, according to the department’s latest annual report. In 1992, 792 inmates were over 50. The Department of Corrections report cites the aging population as one source of the prison system’s growing health care costs.
Wright said the prison system is already making some accommodations for that aging population, including setting up a dialysis center at St. Clair Correctional Facility.
“It makes no sense to send so many people to prison for the rest of their lives,” said Watson, the ACLU director. “It costs more to keep them as they get older.”
Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.