CORONA, Calif. -- Mary Thompson, an inmate at the California Institution for Women here, was convicted of two felonies for a robbery spree in which she threatened victims with a knife. Her third felony under California's three-strikes law was the theft of three tracksuits to pay for her crack cocaine habit in 1982.
Like one out of five prisoners in California, and nearly 10 percent of all prisoners nationally in 2008, Ms. Thompson is serving a life sentence. She will be eligible for parole by 2020.
More prisoners today are serving life terms than ever before -- 140,610 out of 2.3 million inmates being held in jails and prisons across the country -- under tough mandatory minimum-sentencing laws and the declining use of parole for eligible convicts, according to a report released Wednesday by the Sentencing Project, a group that calls for the elimination of life sentences without parole. The report tracks the increase in life sentences from 1984, when the number of inmates serving life terms was 34,000.
Two-thirds of prisoners serving life sentences are Latino or black, the report found. In New York State, for example, 16.3 percent of prisoners serving life terms are white.
Although most people serving life terms were convicted of violent crimes, sentencing experts say there are many exceptions, like Norman Williams, 46, who served 13 years of a life sentence for stealing a floor jack out of a tow truck, a crime that was his third strike. He was released from Folsom State Prison in California in April after appealing his conviction on the grounds of insufficient counsel.
The rising number of inmates serving life terms is straining corrections budgets at a time when financially strapped states are struggling to cut costs. California's prison system, the nation's largest, with 170,000 inmates, also had the highest number of prisoners with life sentences, 34,164, or triple the number in 1992, the report found.
In four other states -- Alabama, Massachusetts, Nevada and New York -- at least one in six prisoners is serving a life term, according to the report.
The California prison system is in federal receivership for overcrowding and failing to provide adequate medical care to prisoners, many of whom are elderly and serving life terms.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this week repeated his proposal to reduce the inmate population through a combination of early releases for nonviolent offenders, home monitoring for some parole violators and more lenient sentencing for some felonies. But there are no credible plans to increase the rate at which prisoners serving life sentences are granted parole.
"When California courts sentence somebody to life with parole, it turns out that's not possible after all," said Joan Petersilia, a Stanford law professor and an expert on parole policy. "Board of parole hearings almost never grant releases, and that's the reason that California's lifer population has grown out of proportion to other states."
Margo Johnson, 48, also an inmate at the women's prison here, has served 24 years of a life sentence for a 1984 murder. She has been recommended for release four times by the state parole board, but she said that Mr. Schwarzenegger had rejected the board's recommendation each time.
"Sometimes I wonder, is it just a game they're playing with me?" Ms. Johnson said.
Seven prison systems -- Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and the federal penitentiary system -- do not offer the possibility of parole to prisoners serving life terms.
That policy also extends to juveniles in Illinois, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. A total of 6,807 juveniles were serving life terms in 2008, 1,755 without the possibility of parole. California again led the nation in the number of juveniles serving life terms, with 2,623.
"The expansion of life sentences suggests that we're rapidly losing faith in the rehabilitation model," said Ashley Nellis, the report's main author.
De Angelo McVay, 42, is serving a life term with no possibility of parole at the maximum security state prison in Lancaster, Calif., for his role in the kidnapping and torture of a man.
He said in an interview Wednesday that he had used his 10 years in prison to reform himself, taking ministry classes, participating in the prison chapel program, becoming vice chairman of his prison yard and avoiding behavioral demerits.
"I'm remorseful for what I did," he said. "But I got no chance at parole, and I know guys who have committed killings and they have parole."
Supporters of longer sentences for criminals, including victims rights organizations, prosecutors and police associations, often cite public safety, the deterrent effect of punishment and the need to remove criminals from society.
But the number of aging inmates serving life sentences has risen sharply as the sluggish economy has shrunk state budgets. By 2004, the number of inmates over 50 had nearly doubled from a decade earlier, to more than 20 percent, according to the report. Older inmates cost more because they have more health needs. California, for example, spends $98,000 to $138,000 a year on each prisoner over 50, compared with the national average of about $35,000 a year.
But Professor Petersilia said she was skeptical that economic arguments alone would persuade voters to treat inmates serving life terms -- most of whom have committed violent felonies like murder, rape, kidnapping and robbery -- with more leniency.
"All the public opinion polls say that everybody will reconsider sentencing for nonviolent offenders or drug offenders, but they're not willing to do anything different for violent offenders," Professor Petersilia. In fact, she added, polls show support for even harsher sentences for sex offenses and other violent crimes.
Burk Foster, a criminal justice professor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan and an expert on the Louisiana penitentiary system, said the expansion of life sentences started at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the nation's largest maximum penitentiary, in the early 1970s, when most people sentenced to life terms were paroled after they had been deemed fit to re-enter society.
"Angola was a prototype of a lifer's prison," said Professor Foster. "In 1973, Louisiana changed its life sentencing law so that lifers would no longer be parole eligible, and they applied that law more broadly over time to include murder, rape, kidnapping, distribution of narcotics and habitual offenders."
Professor Foster said sentencing more prisoners to life sentences was an abandonment of the "corrective" function of prisons.
"Rehabilitation is not an issue at Angola," he said. "They're just practicing lifetime isolation and incapacitation."
The full report, 1 in 11 Prisoners Serving Life Sentences; available from The Sentencing Project at http://www.sentencingproject.org/detail/news.cfm?news_id=754&id=167
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