The criminal justice system in America is often blind to injustice and, more often than not, cruel and unusual.
As of 2017, the Sentencing Project reported that there were nearly 162,000 people in the U.S. prison system serving life sentences—a surging all-time high. More than 44,000 of these individuals are serving what is known as “LWOP” (life without parole) life sentences—sentences that do not allow for parole under any circumstances and offer only a minuscule hope for executive clemency.
It is nothing short of stunning that one in every seven U.S. inmates are serving life sentences—roughly 12,000 of whom were convicted as juveniles. Nearly 3300 of the LWOP lifers were convicted for non-violent offenses, like stealing a $150 jacket.
36 Years in Prison for $50.00 Theft
Take for example 58-year-old Alvin Kennard who was recently released after serving 36 years in the Alabama prison system for stealing $50 when he was 22 years old. He received a LWOP sentence under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act because he had a prior conviction for a service station burglary.
In 2013, the Alabama Sentencing Commission adopted new guidelines which, if they had been in place in 1983 when Kennard was sentenced to the LWOP, he could not have received a sentence of more than 20 years. A state district court judge recently re-sentenced Kennard to time served under the new sentencing guidelines.
Kennard is not an anomaly—many LWOP inmates were convicted for petty offenses like stealing gas from a truck, cashing a stolen check, or stealing someone’s tool set. The Sentencing Projects informs that the American justice system incarcerates people for life at a rate of 50 per 100,000.
This staggering criminal justice cruelty begs the question: How many of these people are innocent or were the victims of prosecutorial or law enforcement misconduct?
Up to 10% of People Convicted are Wrongfully Convicted
The Chicago Tribune reported last year that somewhere between 2 and 10 percent of the people convicted, either through a trial or a coerced guilty plea, in the U.S. are innocent of the crimes of which they were charged.
There are roughly 2.2 million people incarcerated in prisons and jails in the U.S. If ten percent of those people are innocent, that means there are roughly 220,000 people who have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to prison for both violent and non-violent crimes in this country.
Bad Police Work Primary Cause for Wrongful Convictions
Writing the Tribune piece, famed author John Grisham cited “bad police work” as a primary cause for wrongful convictions:
“Most cops are honest, hard-working professionals,” the longtime advocate for the wrongfully convicted said. “But some have been known to hide, alter or fabricate evidence; lie on the stand; cut deals in return for bogus testimony; intimidate and threaten witnesses; coerce confessions; or manipulate eyewitness identifications.”
It was bad police work that sent Cathy Woods to prison with a life sentence for the 1976 killing of a college student Michele Mitchell in Washoe County, Nevada.
In 1979, while Woods was a mental patient in a Louisiana mental hospital, Reno police detectives coerced a fabricated confession from the mentally challenged suspect. She was convicted for the Mitchell murder in 1980 and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In 2014, DNA technology not available at the time of her arrest and conviction revealed that serial killer Rodney Halblower, known as the “Gypsy Hills Killer” who raped and murdered at least five women in Northern California in 1976, also killed Michelle Mitchell in Reno that same year. Halblower is currently serving a life sentence in the California prison system for the murders of two teenage girls.
Exoneration After 39 Years Incarcerated
Faced with the irrefutable DNA evidence, a state district court judge vacated Woods’ conviction and exonerated her later in 2014.
In 2016, Woods filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Washoe County and the detectives who coerced the confession from her.
Last month Washoe County agreed to pay Woods $3 million for her wrongful conviction and 39-year imprisonment—the longest period of incarceration for an innocent woman. Through its officials, the County issued this statement:
“The conviction and subsequent incarceration of Woods for murder is a tragic situation that Washoe County hopes is never repeated,” the county said. “While money can rarely compensate an individual for loss of freedom, Washoe County sincerely hopes that this monetary settlement will be utilized for the best possible care of Woods.”
There have now been 2,382 exonerations since 1989 of people wrongfully convicted by the American justice system, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. These people served a combined 21,890 years in prison while the guilty offenders, more often killers like Halblower, went about their business of committing more crimes.
Justice is not perfect but there is no excuse for a guilty person like Alvin Kennard being forced to serve 36 years for stealing $50 or an innocent person like Cathy Woods having to serve 39 years for a crime she did not commit.
Repeat Offender Laws Multiply Injustice for Non-Violent Offenders
In 2016, the Texas Observer reported that the State of Texas has had some form of a repeat offender law in place since 1856.
In 1973, a Texas judge sentenced William Rummel to a life sentence following his third conviction for theft—petty offenses that together amounted to $230.11. Seven years later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Rummel’s life sentence did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
Texas has since revised its so-called “three strikes law” under which Rummel was sentenced giving juries the discretion to sentence a repeat offender anywhere from 25 to 99 years with the option of imposing a life sentence if jurors so desire.
Still, as the Observer pointed out, there remain serious miscarriages of justice in the Texas justice system when it comes to non-violent repeat offenders.
For example, in 2013, a Waco jury sentenced 43-year-old Willie Smith Ward (a repeat offender) to 50 years in prison for stealing a rack of baby-back ribs while a Fort Worth jury in 2019 sentenced Julie Sue Witt (also a repeat offender) to 50 years for stealing $50,000 from her employer.
Both Ward and Witt are now among the ranks of 44,000 people in American prisons who serving sentences of 50 years or more—sentences which have become known as “virtual life sentences,” according to the Sentencing Project. Neither Ward nor Witt have a life expectancy needed to complete the sentence service on their 50-year terms.
The nation, and especially Texas, can do better than this at dispensing justice.
Cruel and unusual justice, which is what Ward and Witt received, is not justice—it is pointless punishment inflicted for the sake of punishing. There is no legitimate penological objective for either 50-year term just as there was no legitimate penological objective for Alabama keeping Alvin Kennard locked up for 36 years or Nevada keeping Cathy Woods locked up for 39 years for a crime law enforcement and prosecutorial officials knew, or should have known, she did not commit.
Justice must be served, not abused.