Violent offenders now get life sentences more than drug offenders

Federal judges sentenced just 41 drug offenders to life without parole in 2014, an astonishing 78% drop since President Obama took office.

Life sentences for non-violent drug offenses have fallen five years straight under Obama and are now at the lowest level since 1991, according to a Clemency Report analysis of data from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder appear to have successfully reversed the Justice Department ‘s 25-year-old policy of prioritizing drug offenses over violent and sexual crimes. Life sentences for those offenses have increased under Obama — to a level higher than under any of his predecessors  — while life sentences for drugs have declined.

So sharp has the turn-around been that federal prosecutors sent more violent criminals (45) away for life than drug offenders (41) in 2014 — the first time that’s happened since passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. In addition, federal prosecutors are getting life sentences more often for sex offenders, such as producers of in child pornography.

Between 1991 and 2014, federal judges sentenced 5,431 defendants to life without parole, according to the federal court data. Of these, 3,482 — or 64% — were drug offenders. (See data, below.)

Federal prisons currently hold 5,481 prisoners serving life, including some sentenced the federal government abolished parole in 1987.

Life without parole fever

Life sentences for federal offenses were rare until the drug war escalated in the 1980s.

In 1986, the Bureau of Prisons reported just 36 prisoners entered the system that year with life sentences.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 changed that, creating mandatory life sentences for some drug offenses. Parole was abolished in 1987.  This one-two punch created today’s increasingly elderly population of non-violent drug offenders serving life without parole.

Prosecutors seek maximum penalty, not justice

The first President Bush’s Attorney General Dick Thornburgh created LWOP fever when he ordered prosecutors to always seek the harshest possible penalty. The number of life sentences had increased little after the 1986 law was passed. But Thornburgh’s policy change started a prosecutors’ crusade against drug offenders, especially minorities.

Life sentences for drugs soared from 34 in 1991 to 186 in 1993.

Eric Holder and son, Eric Holder II

Eric Holder and son, Eric Holder II

President Clinton set a record early in his term for giving life sentences to drug offenders — 238 in 1994 — but the numbers declined slightly after his Attorney General, Janet Reno, reversed Thornburgh’s “seek the max” memo and gave prosecutors more discretion.

In 2003, the second President Bush’s Attorney General, John Ashcroft, ordered prosecutors to again always seek the harshest possible punishment. That pushed life sentences for drug offenders from 122 in year year before he took office to 183 the year he left.

On average, 180 drug offenders annually got life without parole sentences in the 17 years since the Thornburgh crusade began and Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder ended it. Holder stopped the mechanized production of life without parole sentences largely through a series of memos ordering prosecutors to use good judgement — for example, by only seeking life without parole “for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers or kingpins.”

This stopped the practice of getting life without parole sentences for minor and mid-level drug offenders — but it has not freed those doing unjust life sentences, such as Leopoldo Hernandez-Miranda, 76, (pot); Josephine Ledezma, 56, (cocaine); or Donald B.W. Evans, 50, (crack).

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RIP: George Daniel, meth lifer, died at age 75

RIP: George Daniel, meth lifer, died at age 75

About 80% of federal drug lifers are minorities. Of the one-fifth who are white (non-Hispanic), most are poor, rural people who produced or sold meth.

To learn about specific cases, see The Clemency Report’s list of pot lifers and crack lifers deserving freedom, as well as stories on LSD lifers unjustly in prison,  lifers Rudd Walker  and George Daniel  (who died in prison) and our Top 25 National list and Top 25 Women list of clemency candidates.

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