As part of a call by The Sentencing Project to abolish the mindset of locking people up and throwing away the key, Indiana is being highlighted as having the highest percentage of individuals in the nation who are serving 50 years or more in prison.
The Sentencing Project’s just-released report, “No End in Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment,” reviews incarceration statistics from all 50 states and spotlights trends as well as results of the country’s “era of mass incarceration.” Finding that one out of every seven people currently in prison in the U.S. is serving a life sentence, the nonprofit is advocating for the elimination of life without parole, life with parole and what it describes as “virtual life sentences” of 50 years or longer.
“To put this in some perspective, there are more people in prison serving life sentence today than there were in the entire prison population in 1970 just before the start of mass incarceration,” Ashley Nellis, lead researcher and author of the report, said during a press conference unveiling the report. “… Reforms will fall short in ending mass incarceration if we fail to shorten sentences for those convicted of violent crimes including life imprisonment.”
Indiana had 3,940 individuals, or 14% of its total incarcerated population, serving either life with parole, life without parole, or virtual life sentences in 2020, according to the report.
Since a majority of those, or 3,724, had been sentenced to at least 50 years bars, the report concluded that 14% of the Hoosier state’s overall prison population is serving a virtual life sentence. This is the highest percentage in the country. Nebraska and Iowa follow at 11% and 9% respectively.
The report attributes the increase in life sentences, not just in Indiana but across the United States, to incarceration policies meant to show a tough-on-crime approach to violent crime.
Yet as violent crime has continued to fall since the mid-1990s, people serving life sentences has been rising dramatically, in part because of the growing list of offenses that are punished with long-term imprisonment. The report found that while individuals convicted of homicide led the growth in life sentences between 2012 and 2020, the number of people serving life for a sex-related offense climbed 40% and the number serving life for aggravated assault, robbery or kidnapping rose 9%.
African Americans, Latinxs and other people of color have been disproportionately impacted of the expansion of life sentences. The Sentencing Project noted two-thirds of the people serving life in prisons across the country are minorities, with 46% being Black and 16% being Latinx.
Maryland leads the nation with African Americans comprising 76% of its life population in 2020. Indiana’s life-in-prison population, for the same period, was 48% Black and 47% white, which is very much out of proportion with the state’s overall diversity — 9.9% of Hoosiers are Black and 84.8% are white, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“This report is really a wakeup call for the nation to roll back our outdated and, frankly, often racially motivated punishments of the past,” said The Sentencing Project’s executive director, Amy Fettig. “The Sentencing Project and our partners nationwide are committed to ending the destructive era of mass incarceration by working to change unfair and extreme laws while ensuring the adults and youths who are in prison right now get a second chance to return home and lead productive lives in their communities.”
Bold step needed
Many states have been introducing reforms to reduce punishments for low-level and nonviolent crimes. Indiana has shifted in recent years to having people convicted of lower-end felonies serve their sentences in county jails where they are provided treatment and rehabilitative services.
However, The Sentencing Project sees the reduction in punishments for lower crimes as having the unintended consequence of “further legitimizing long-term imprisonment for offenses classified as violent.”
During the press conference, Nellis explained while the sentencing reforms are good, they will fall short because a “vast majority of the people in prison, despite the popular belief, are not there on a marijuana charge.”
“When we focus on just these low-level crimes, we can sort of wipe our hands and say, ‘Well, we’ve done criminal justice reform … but really we haven’t taken enough of a bold step …,” Nellis continued. “We realize that advocating for ending life in prison is a bold step, but it is a necessary step in order to really revamp the entire system ….”
The Sentencing Project is advocating that all life sentences be limited to a 20-year maximum except in rare circumstances. If a person is deemed to still be a risk after 20 years, then the courts could order a civil confinement where the focus would be on rehabilitation and reintegration.
In addition, the nonprofit is calling for parole decisions to divorced from politics. Instead, eligibility for early release should be based on the individual’s development during incarceration as well as current public safety considerations and the support that will be needed to ensure the person does not recidivate.
Finally, the organization wants a focus on helping victims and communities heal. Survivors, at present, are not provided with sufficient resources to cope with the emotional, physical and financial effects of crime. The recommendation is for a restorative justice system to be implemented that is “survivor-centered, accountability-based, safety-driven and racially equitable.”
Renaldo Hudson knows well the experience of a life sentence, describing it as “like walking around unable to breathe.”
The Illinois man served more than 37 years behind bars, 17 of which were on a sentence of life without parole, before being granted clemency by Gov. J.B. Prtizker. Now the education director for the Illinois Prison Project, Hudson spoke at The Sentencing Project’s press conference, saying, “I know I’m responsible for the act that put me in prison, but I’m also responsible for working diligently to rehabilitate myself.”
As Hudson talked about his experience, he noted “for so many thousands of people across this country,” there is not relief from a life sentence. And, he continued, many of them never committed a violent offense.
“I want to add my voice … (in) saying to America, ‘We’re so much better than this,’” Hudson said. “I commit my life to going across the country and sharing … that people can commit bad offenses but we also can redeem ourselves and begin to really pay restitution by being a witness to the world that you can be better than your worst decision.”