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Report: Alabama ranks 4th-highest in percentage of inmates serving harshest sentences

In Alabama, 26 percent of inmates are serving life with or without parole or sentences of at least 50 years.

Alabama prisons rank fourth-highest in the nation for the percentage of incarcerated people who are serving either life without the possibility of parole, life with the possibility of parole or sentences of at least 50 years, according to a report released Wednesday. 

The Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for sentencing reforms and reduced incarceration, in its report, titled “No End in Sight,” said that almost five times the number of people are serving life sentences in the U.S. as were in 1984. 

One in seven people in U.S. prisons is serving either life without parole, life with parole, or virtual life, which the nonprofit defines as those serving  50 years or more, according to the report.

“That is more people serving life in this country than in any other nation in the world. We’re actually a global outlier,” said Amy Fettig, executive director at The Sentencing Project, speaking to reporters during a press call Wednesday.  “This report is really a wake-up call for the nation to roll back our outdated, excessive and frankly, often racially motivated punishments of the past.” 

In Alabama, 5,660 state inmates, 0r 26 percent, are serving either LWOP, LWP or virtual life sentences, which ranks as the fourth-highest percentage in the country, according to the report. 

The number of people serving either LWOP, LWP or virtual life sentences in Alabama in 2020 was 149 percent higher than the state’s total prison population in 1970, at the start of the country’s mass incarceration boom, which was the eleventh-highest percentage in the country, the report reads. 

“As in all stages of the criminal legal system, we find troubling racial disparities among those sentenced to these longest punishments nationally,” said Ashley Nellis, senior analyst at The Sentencing Project and author of the report, speaking during the briefing.  

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More than two-thirds of those serving life sentences are people of color, Nellis said, and one in five Black men in prison today are serving a life sentence. Researchers also found that thirty percent of people serving life sentences are 55 or older. 

“We view this as profoundly troubling, in an era where Americans have grown uneasy with our placement as the world’s leader in incarceration,” Nellis said. “Reforms will fall short in ending mass incarceration if we fail to shorten sentences for those convicted of violent crimes, including life imprisonment.” 

Alabama ranks eighth-highest in the percentage of those serving LWOP, LWP or virtual life who are Black, at 65 percent, according to the report. 

While the number of people serving life with the possibility of parole dropped by three percent nationally between 2016 and 2020, according to the report, some states still have higher percentages of LWP inmates, including Alabama, which ranks fifth-highest, with 16 percent of inmates serving LWP sentences.

Alabama also hands down life sentences for people convicted of drug-related offenses at much higher levels than the national average, of 3 percent of the total prison population. In Alabama, 12 percent of those serving life were convicted of drug-related offenses.

District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine, speaking during the call, noted the report’s finding that more than 100,000 in the U.S. are serving life sentences for crimes they committed before they turned 18. 

“Thousands of them were given life without parole, even though that practice is condemned roundly amongst the international community, and a disproportionate number of those individuals incarcerated are people of color,” Racine said. “This is a sign just how unforgiving and how unjust the justice system is for young black and brown offenders.”

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Racine discussed the 2016 passages of the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act by the D.C. Council, which gives those who were incarcerated for crimes they committed as young people a chance at resentencing once they’ve served substantial prison time and an expansion of that law in 2020 that broadened it to cover those convicted of crimes before they turned 25. 

“As our friends at The Sentencing Project make clear with this report, it’s past time for jurisdictions across the country to embrace these reforms,” Racine said. “Our mass incarceration problem is not a reflection of a population more violent, or more criminal than any other. It’s the result of disastrously misguided and unfair policies, written in the name of appearing tough on crime, policies we must now end, because we must be smart on crime.”

The Alabama House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 3 approved a series of sentencing reform bills aimed at giving judges more flexibility when sentencing, but a bill by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, that would repeal the state’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, was sent to a subcommittee for further work. 

Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Mobile, during the Jan. 3 hearing argued that repealing the state’s Habitual Felony Offender Act would limit the length of sentences that a judge might hand down to a repeat offender. England said that judges would still have the discretion to impose the harshest of sentences even if the act was repealed.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Feb. 1 signed 30-year leases for two new prisons to be built in Escambia and Elmore counties, estimated to cost more than $3 billion, which is $500 million more than Ivey and the Alabama Department of Corrections has estimated the project would cost. Ivey’s office put that increase to indexing, an accounting tool used to adjust for inflation, according to an overview of the deal. 

The U.S. Department of Justice in December filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections, alleging violations of inmates’ constitutional rights to protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence, sexual abuse and excessive force by prison guards. 

In previously released reports the Justice Department detailed systemic problems of abuse from guards, corruption, rampant drug use, violence, overcrowding and understaffing in Alabama’s prisons. The DOJ in those reports states that while new prison facilities might help in some areas, new buildings won’t fully address the state’s widespread, deadly problems in its prisons.

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Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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