The philosophy of any justice system, at its most basic, is that the punishment should fit the crime.
For example, if someone in Denver was caught stealing a T-shirt from a department store, a rational punishment would be for them to return the jacket, pay a fine, and maybe complete a set number of community service hours. It would be cruel and unusual to send someone to prison for that petty crime.
Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom of proportional punishment doesn’t always seem to hold true in our American justice system, and more and more nonviolent offenders are getting sentenced to life in prison without parole. In fact, the ACLU recently published a report estimating that there were 3,278 prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent acts—such as property and drug crimes—as of 2012.
Some of those prisoners had committed more than one nonviolent offense,and some had served time in prison before, but in all cases it seems incredibly extreme to sentence someone to spend the rest of their life in prison for committing a drug or property crime.
The Prosecution Push
So how do these sentences get blown out of proportion?Many times, an offender will start out with a lesser sentence, but a prosecutor will keep pushing for more harsh punishment.
Louisiana man Bill Winters was one such example. This past year, Winters, who was homeless at the time, drunkenly broke into an oncologist’s office on a Sunday morning and was caught with a box of Gobstoppers candy he’d found in a desk drawer. He was originally sentenced to a seven-year prison sentence for burglary, but this was increased to twelve based on his previous record of nonviolent offenses. At this point, Winters’ prosecutor appealed the case under the argument that it was an “illegally lenient sentence”, and Winters was eventually sentenced to life in prison.
The Cost of Life in Prison
Our nation has a major prison problem, and sentencing more nonviolent offenders to life without parole certainly isn’t helping the problem. 2.4 million people are currently imprisoned across our country, and although we have 6% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners. Oftentimes, prison facilities are ill-equipped to handle the number of inmates, and last year the Supreme Court even ordered the California prison system to cut their prison population by more than 30,000 after their current conditions were found to be “cruel and unusual punishment”.
In addition to inhumane conditions, we have to take into account the price of incarcerating someone for the rest of their life. The organization the Price of Prisons estimated that, across the country,it costs an average of $31,307 to incarcerate just one prisoner for a year, and in some states, it can be as high as $60,000 a year. When you take a prisoner’s entire life span into account, it’s significantly more expensive to keep a nonviolent offender in prison than to pay for rehabilitative treatment and education.
If you or someone you love is convicted of a drug crime or any other nonviolent crime, you need to work with an experienced Denver defense attorney in order to fight the charges and avoid a disproportionate sentence. Nobody who has the potential for rehabilitation should have to give up the rest of their lives over a nonviolent crime.
About the Author:
Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at the University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state. She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases.