The ACLU's report does not include people serving lengthy mandatory terms that amount to life sentences -- such as Weldon Angelos, who is serving a 55-year sentence in federal prison for possessing a gun during three marijuana sales, or Morton Berger, who is serving a 200-year sentence in Arizona for possessing child pornography. Prisoners like Berger would not have been counted anyway, because the ACLU excluded sex offenders.
Furthermore, three states with nonviolent offenders serving LWOP sentences -- Delaware, Nevada and Virginia -- did not provide data. Hence the ACLU's grim tally, appalling as it is, understates the number of people unjustly condemned to spend the rest of their lives in cages.
"Today," the ACLU notes, "the United States is virtually alone in its willingness to sentence nonviolent offenders to die behind bars." It urges state and federal legislators to abolish that practice and make the change retroactive so that current prisoners would be eligible for resentencing. In the meantime, it says, governors and the president should use their clemency powers, which they have exercised in recent years with scandalous infrequency, to free people who never should have received life sentences.
The ACLU also suggests that legislators "recalibrate drug policies." Since four-fifths of the people serving LWOP sentences for nonviolent crimes are drug offenders, more than a tweak may be needed. But we could start by recognizing that murdering someone is worse than selling him drugs.
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