A report released Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union says in 2012 at least 3,278 Americans were serving sentences of life in prison without parole for nonviolent crimes that include siphoning gasoline, stealing a bagged lunch, drunkenly threatening a police officer and shoplifting.
The tally is likely an under-count, the report says, because it does not include sequential sentences for nonviolent offenses that may exceed a person's lifespan or prisoners who are eligible for parole but unlikely to receive it.
Around 79 percent of the nonviolent life sentences without parole are drug-related, according to the ACLU, and around 20 percent are for property crimes. The remaining 1 percent are for traffic and other infractions in Alabama and Florida.
Federal prisons house 63 percent of the nonviolent offenders sentenced to die behind bars, of whom 96 percent are there for drug crimes. The remainder ran afoul of state laws, many of them ensnared by mandatory punishments for repeat offenders.
Louisiana incarcerated the most prisoners for life without parole for nonviolent offenses – with 429 such inmates – followed by Florida at 270, Alabama at 244, Mississippi at 93 and South Carolina at 88.
Four other states have nonviolent prisoners serving life without parole.
Among the most obscure offenses – mostly from Louisiana and Mississippi – documented in the report as the impetus for life sentences:
- Possessing stolen wrenches
- Siphoning gasoline from a truck
- Shoplifting a computer from WalMart
- Shoplifting three belts from a department store
- Shoplifting digital cameras from WalMart
- Shoplifting two jerseys from an athletics store
- Breaking into a parked car and stealing a bag containing a woman's lunch
- Stealing a 16-year-old car's radio
- Drunkenly threatening a police officer while handcuffed in a patrol car
Around 65 percent of nonviolent life without parole inmates are African-American, 18 percent are white and 16 percent are Hispanic, the ACLU says.
The ACLU is encouraging states and the federal government to revise sentencing laws that require life in prison. In more than 83 percent of cases it surveyed the sentencing judge was unable to exercise any discretion, the report said.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced Aug. 12 the Department of Justice would begin circumventing federal law by avoiding charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses.
Two bills pending before Congress would reform federal mandatory sentences. The "Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013" sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and co-sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, would reduce minimum sentences for various drug offenses and introduce prison overcrowding as a sentencing consideration. The "Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013" sponsored by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and co-sponsored by Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, Leahy and Carl Levin, D-Mich., would allow judges to dole out sentences below the current minimums.