More U.S. inmates destined never to leave prison

October 02, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HARRISBURG, PA. -- In the woods near Gaines, Pa., in late December 1969, Charlotte Goodwin told Jackie Lee Thompson a lie.

The two 15-year-olds had been having sex for about a month, and she said she was pregnant.

That angered Jackie, and he shot Charlotte three times at close range and then drowned her in the icy waters of Pine Creek.

A few months later, Judge Charles G. Webb sentenced him to life in prison.

But the judge told him: "You will always have hope in a thing of this kind. We have found that, in the past, quite frequently, if you behave yourself, there is a good chance that you will learn a trade and you will be paroled after a few years."

Thompson did behave himself.

So exemplary is his prison record that when Thompson, now 50, asked the pardons board to release him, the victim's father begged for his release, and a retired prison official offered Thompson a home and a job.

"We can forgive him," said Duane Goodwin, Charlotte's father. "Why can't you?"

The board turned Thompson down.

Often a misnomer

Just a few decades ago, a life sentence was often a misnomer, a way to suggest harsh punishment but deliver only 10 to 20 years.

But now, driven by tougher laws and political pressure from governors and parole boards, thousands of lifers are going into prisons each year, and in many states only a few are coming out, even in cases in which judges and prosecutors did not intend to put them away forever.

In just 30 years, the United States has created something never before seen in its history and unheard of around the globe: a booming population of prisoners whose only way out of prison is likely to be inside a coffin.

A survey by The New York Times found that about 132,000 of the nation's prisoners, or almost 1 in 10, are serving life sentences.

The number of lifers has almost doubled in the last decade, far outpacing the overall growth in the prison population.

Of those lifers sentenced between 1988 and 2001, about a third are serving time for sentences other than murder, including burglary and drug crimes.

`Without parole'

Growth has been especially sharp among lifers with the words "without parole" appended to their sentences.

In 1993, the Times survey found, about 20 percent of all lifers had no chance of parole.

Last year, the number rose to 28 percent.

The United States now houses a large and permanent population of prisoners who will die of old age behind bars.

At the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, for instance, more than 3,000 of the 5,100 prisoners are serving life without parole, and most of the rest are serving sentences so long that they cannot be completed in a typical lifetime.

Some critics of life sentences say they are overused, pointing to people such as Jerald Sanders, who is serving a life sentence in Alabama.

He was a small-time burglar and had never been convicted of a violent crime.

Under the state's habitual offender law, he was sent away after stealing a $60 bicycle.

Fewer than two-thirds of the 70,000 people sentenced to life from 1988 to 2001 are in for murder, the analysis by The New York Times found.

Other lifers - more than 25,000 of them - were convicted of crimes such as rape, kidnapping, armed robbery, assault, extortion, burglary and arson.

People convicted of drug trafficking account for 16 percent of all lifers.

As decades pass and prisoners grow more mature and less violent, does the cost of keeping them locked up justify what might be a diminishing benefit in public safety?

By a conservative estimate, it costs $3 billion a year to house America's lifers.

And as prisoners age, their medical care can become very expensive.

Studies show that most prisoners become markedly less violent as they grow older.

"Committing crime, particularly violent crime, is an activity of the young," said Richard Kern, the director of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission.

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