Pot lifers not eligible for parole

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Federal judges have sentenced 54 people to life without parole for marijuana since 1996, according to a new clemencyreport.org analysis of federal court data.

The sentences account for 54 of the 2,794 life sentences for drugs given during that time — or 1.9%.

Beth Curtis of lifeforpot.com

Beth Curtis

However, the fate of these prisoners is especially noteworthy because polls show a majority of Americans believe marijuana should be legal and the drug has been legalized in four states and Washington, D.C.

Who are these pot lifers?

Beth Curtis, sister of federal pot lifer John Knock (Class of ’01), has stories and photos of many marijuana lifers on lifeforpot.com. She also created The Clemency Report‘s list of the 10 Most Outrageous Marijuana Sentences.

Although sentenced in 2001, John Knock was arrested and has been locked up in 1996, showing how most prison terms began before the official sentencing date shown in this data.

The count of 54 federal life sentences for marijuana since 1996 is the first count published so far but leaves other important questions unanswered.

  • Sentences prior to 1996 are not known. That numbers is likely in the low dozens.
  • The number gives only a rough sense of pot lifers still in federal prison. Some have died. A few have been released.
  • No demographic details, such as race or age, are available. Many pot lifers are now senior citizens.
  • Pot lifers in state prisons are not included in the count of 54 federal life for pot sentences. A few states — particularly Oklahoma and Louisiana — sentence significant numbers of non-violent marijuana offenders to life without parole.

    Oklahoma pot lifer Leland Dodd

    Oklahoma pot lifer Leland Dodd

That said, the first count of federal life sentences for pot adds to a growing body of knowledge about who is serving these unjust sentences and what must be done.

The Sentencing Project did this groundbreaking report, Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America, in November 2013. The ACLU gave a powerful and detailed look at prisoners doing life without parole for non-violent offenses in the same month: A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Non-Violent Offenses.

Read detailed analysis of all federal life sentences for drugs.

Learn about all federal life sentences for drugs.

The Clemency Report released a detailed analysis of all federal life sentences for drugs and other crimes on March 13.

Last month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission did a report on federal life sentences in 2013, described in this Clemency Report story. The Commission found four marijuana life sentences given that year vs. two in the court data.

The courts and the Commission use the same data but slightly different methodologies. Both use federal fiscal years (Oct. 1-Sept. 30) and classify offenders according to the most serious offense charged. But classifications can differ slightly when, for example, a case involves more than one drug or charge.  Over time, Sentencing Commission data and U.S. Courts data match closely, if imperfectly, as one would expect from numbers derived from the same source.

One thing is precisely clear: Far too many people are serving life for pot.

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