When we picture “low-bottom” addicts and alcoholics, we tend to picture those who have suffered legal issues. Perhaps they received a few DWIs or spent a few nights in the drunk tank. Maybe they’ve even been in prison for years because they committed violent crimes while under the influence. Recently, one of our staff attended an AA meeting in which a new member had just served a forty-year prison sentence. We might therefore imagine men such as this when picturing low-bottom drunks as well. What we don’t picture, however, is non-violent people serving life sentences.
Unfortunately, this happens more than you might think. A person is caught dealing or simply possessing drugs, and the judge decides to make an example of them. The next thing they know, they’re rotting in a cell for the rest of their life. These life sentences are not necessarily dependent on the drugs involved. They’ve been handed down for everything from crack cocaine to marijuana. And not only are they often non-violent, but many are first offenses. To put this in context, there are murderers who don’t get life without parole on their first offense. For non-violent drug crimes, such a penalty seems pretty steep.
We’re going to discuss four examples of these life sentences below. Two of these are among the examples given in a 2015 article by The Fix, which actually lists fifteen life sentences for non-violent drug crimes. The last two come from other sources. Given the dates on which these life sentences were handed out, it may sound like the problem is past us. Unfortunately, these non-violent offenders have yet to receive clemency. Following our chosen examples, we will discuss the problems with this and whether or not there is a solution. Spoiler alert: there is always a solution to injustice.
A Few Harsh Examples of Life Sentences
When we mention non-violent drug crimes, most might picture a mere possession or dealing charge. But some are more complicated. The Fix mentioned John Knock, who was arrested on three conspiracy charges in 1994. He was involved in a plan to import and sell cannabis, as well as launder the money. He received twenty years in prison on top of two life sentences. And while the crime was pretty extreme, he had no apparent criminal history. Nonetheless, his appeals were exhausted to no effect. After he had served eighteen years, his attorney filed a petition for clemency. He also petitioned on behalf of four other offenders charged with non-violent crimes related to marijuana. They were all dismissed. Granted, Knock lived in Florida, where dealing marijuana is a felony. Nonetheless, two life sentences seems rather harsh.
A more recent example cited by The Fix is that of Fate Vincent Winslow. He was homeless when, in 2008, he tried to sell pot to an undercover cop. This case is different from some in that Winslow did not have a clean record. He had been charged with possession four years prior, and had two other non-violent felonies on his record as well. He was given a life sentence without parole. His sentence also included hard labor. During the trial, many scrutinized his attorney, who did not even seem to know his client’s name. More controversy arose when it was revealed that the jury did not know life sentences were a possibility for this sort of crime. Even the warden at Angola Prison does not believe Winslow should be in jail for life. The warden has referred to the sentence as “extreme,” as well as “cruel and unusual punishment.”
There is a somewhat popular story about Rick Wershe, also known as “White Boy Rick.” Wershe was arrested for possession with intent to deliver in 1987. He was seventeen at the time, and was stopped for a traffic violation. It was then discovered that he was stashing eight kilos of cocaine nearby. At the time, Michigan followed a rule known as the 650 Lifer law. Offenders caught with more than 650 grams of cocaine were given life without parole. The Atavist Magazine points out that, in the 1980s, murderers served an average of less than ten years. At Wershe’s trial, the judge said that he was “worse than a mass murderer.” In 1998, Michigan acknowledged the 650 Lifer law as a failure and repealed it. In 2010, life sentences for juvenile offenders were deemed unconstitutional. Nonetheless, Wershe remains in jail.
The last story we would like to tell is that of Sharanda Jones. In 1993, she received a life sentence for a first-time cocaine offense. Crack cocaine, to be more specific, although she claims she did not know it at the time. She was in the middle of a cocaine deal, facilitating the sale but not actually buying or supplying the drugs herself. The cocaine was then to be converted into crack. The judge enhanced her sentence on the basis of several questionable points. These included her ownership of a licensed firearm, her testimony (which was only deemed false when six of her charges failed to result in convictions), and the false accusation that she was leading a crack ring. Today, judges have a bit more freedom when it comes to sentencing. But in Jones’ case, the number of enhancements meant that a federal life sentence was the only option.
We could easily go on. There are currently thousands of inmates serving life sentences for non-violent drug crimes. Some have committed greater crimes than those listed above. Some have not. Most of them are the results of outdated laws dictating mandatory minimum sentences. Today, many would describe these laws as borderline draconian. But, as we will explain a bit further down, even some of those who believe in mandatory minimum sentencing might view life sentences in these cases to be much too harsh.
Why Harsh Sentencing Causes Problems
Those who are given life sentences without parole often receive fewer rights and privileges than other prisoners. They may not receive drug treatment, because they’ll never be free to use drugs anyway. They may not receive education, because they have no need of it in prison. To some, this may seem pragmatic. Providing them these opportunities would be a waste of resources. Why give someone the tools to reform when they’ll be behind bars for the rest of their life? In this sense, life sentences are practically death penalties without a set execution date. There’s very little living to be done behind bars.
Naturally, there are exceptions. For instance, the Bard Prison Initiative offers college education to inmates, regardless of their sentence. This means that, if given clemency, those with life sentences would have the skills to acquire a job in the outside world. Except that BPI only applies to prisons in the state of New York. Even then, it does not apply to all prisons within the state. Those locked up in prisons that do not participate must maintain good behavior and apply for a transfer. Promisingly, many have done just this. Even more promisingly, BPI has helped colleges in Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland and Indiana install similar programs.
This may be promising, but it does not seem like enough. Even if those serving life sentences for non-violent drug crimes are given these opportunities, they currently have no way of using them. Perhaps those who receive an education will become better people. Perhaps those who receive drug treatment will experience some spiritual growth. But they will experience this growth with no chance of seeing the light of day. They have been denied the opportunity to have kids or spend quality time with their families. This hurts the families as well. Imagine the pain you would feel if your son or daughter never came home again because a cop caught them selling a gram of pot. This is the pain that the families of these inmates have felt every day for years.
Families should not be forced to suffer because a loved one did something regrettable. Addicts who have never harmed a fly should not be denied their right to recovery. When we become sober, we often use our second chance to help others. Those currently serving life sentences could be helping untold numbers of addicts. But first, they would need treatment. And for that treatment to matter, they would need the freedom to perform service work. If a solution cannot be found, all of their potential will go to waste.
Is There A Solution to Harsh Sentencing?
It occurs to us that some may actually be in favor of these life sentences. After all, the threat of prison is supposed to act us a deterrent. With this in mind, life sentences for drug crimes sound as if they would deter drug abuse quite a bit. But despite those serving sentences, rates of use and overdose deaths are still on the rise. If harsh sentencing is a deterrent, why isn’t it working? Are we supposed to assume that all drug users should be given life sentences? Would that really solve the problem?
This is a troubling question, and there may not be an answer. But we’d like to take what might seem like a hard left turn for a moment and talk about gun control. Not to say anything about gun control itself—we know this is a sensitive subject for many right now. Instead, we would simply like to make a hypothetical comparison.
Recently, Bill O’Reilly told Stephen Colbert that the solution to gun violence was mandatory federal sentencing for all gun crimes. Even non-violent ones. Each crime would carry a mandatory sentence, which would escalate depending upon the severity of the act. The example he used was that of a person robbing a convenience store at gunpoint. In this example, the offender would be charged as normal. Then, they would receive a ten-year mandatory sentence on top of that.
Ten years may sound strict, but that is essentially the point. O’Reilly was outlining an instance in which he felt harsh sentencing would be a deterrent. Nonetheless, he was not advocating life sentences. Because you can believe in strict punishments without advocating life sentences for every single crime. With non-violent crimes, we must account for the possibility of reform. And drug possession does not present a case in which criminals cannot be reformed. We know they can, because we have seen it happen in our own facilities. (Even some violent former addicts have since reformed.) But in order to make that possible, offenders must be free to enter our facilities in the first place. Those with life sentences will never get this chance without clemency.
This is why we believe that clemency is necessary for non-violent offenders serving life sentences. Even if we freed them all today, the injustice would have already been done. But at least they’d get a chance at taking their lives back. At least they’d be able to seek help for their substance problems. They’d be able to spend their remaining years enjoying sobriety as free men and women. They deserve this chance as much as anyone else. Clemency is the only way to give it to them.