Despite our politically polarized country, most people agree that ending mass incarceration is necessary. There is also wide- spread agreement that non-violent drug offenders need treatment, not punishment. However, the focus of most reform is almost entirely on nonviolent and drug offenses. Nonviolent drug offenders make up 5% of the prison population. Violent offenders make up at least 50%. If the U.S. is serious about undoing mass incarceration, the long sentences violent offenders serve must be addressed.
Two recently published books do just that: The Meaning of Life—The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences (2018) by Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis, (Kerry Myers, contributor); and Until We Reckon—Violence, Mass, and A Road to Repair (2019) by Danielle Sered.
While most people know that the US has more people serving life terms than all other countries, how many more is surprising. The authors of the Meaning of Life, point to a 2016 international study of life imprisonment revealing that the number of people serving life sentences in the U.S. is higher than the combined total in the other 113 countries surveyed.
A cross-country compari- son with the U.S. disclosed that:
• The U.S. accounts for 40% of the world’s lifer population.
• The U.S. locks up its citizens at five to 10 times the rate of Canada and western European nations.
• State and federal governments in the U.S. spend $60 – $80 billion annually on incarceration.
In Meaning of Life, contributor Kerry Myers, an award-winning writer and former lifer, chronicles the lives of six people, whose reckless behavior was responsible for destroying or damaging many lives, including their own. The book, however, is not about hopelessness. Lifers in the book were able to achieve a degree of redemption but only after honestly confronting the ways in which their behavior seriously damaged their victim’s lives. Accountability is also one of the focuses of Until We Reckon by Danielle Sered.
Sered proposes that we reconsider the purpose of incarceration and argues that the needs of everyone, perpetrators of violent crime as well as the survivors of those crimes, are better met by asking people who commit violence to accept responsibility for their behavior and make amends in ways that mean something to the people they have hurt.
One of the six lifers featured in The Meaning of Life is Sam Lewis, who was convicted of a gang-related killing when he was 18 years old.
While incarcerated, Lewis took advantage of every available educational and life skills opportunity. He used his own life experience to offer gang members a way toward societal betterment.
When Lewis got out of prison 24 years later in 2008, he made time to come by the SQNews office with Scott Budnick, a movie producer and the founder of the Anti-Recidivism Collation (ARC) a non-profit that advocates for criminal
justice reform and works to prepare prisoners for life after incarceration. Budnick had just appointed Lewis executive director of ARC. In The Meaning of Life, Myers writes that Budnick appointed him because he was impressed by Lewis’ transformation and believed his experience would be invaluable to people in the same situation. Budnick may have been impressed but, according to Myers, Lewis insists that he’s not the exception to the rule.
“There are others like me who want to do good things and give back, so I try not to allow anyone to exceptionalize me,” Lewis said. This was consistent with the attitude he expressed when we talked in the SQNews room.
There is now a wide body of research that has concluded that the deterrent effect of the criminal justice system is not achieved by long sentences; deterrence is a function of the certainty of punishment, not its severity. These assumptions hold true for crimes ranging from shoplifting to murder.
Mauer and his Sentencing Project colleague, Ashley Nellis argue that there is no practical or moral justification for sentences longer than 20 years.
Myers/Nellis cite numerous studies, reports and statistics that show keeping a person incarcerated for life is not only inhumane, it’s counter-productive. Harsher sentences have been shown to have little effect on crime rates, since criminal thinking declines as people mature. Thus we’re spending a fortune on geriatric care for older prisoners who pose little threat to public.