When Deadhead Timothy Tyler sent five grams of LSD to a friend, little did he know he was setting himself up to die behind bars.
The vegan loved to follow the Grateful Dead around the country, selling fried dough at concerts—and he had already been arrested twice for selling small amounts of acid and marijuana in 1991.
Tyler, sentenced in 1994 to life without parole at age 24, is one of 110 examples cited in an American Civil Liberties Union report on nonviolent offenders spending life in prison. Most are serving time for drug offenses, and, of 646 sentences reviewed by the ACLU, 83 percent had been imprisoned without parole for nonviolent crimes.
But a bipartisan tide is rising against life without parole, particularly those sentences handed down as a result of laws requiring such judgments—regardless of the crime’s severity.
“People now understand the excess and cost and harm associated with this,” said Vanita Gupta, the ACLU’s deputy legal director and the report’s editor. “Every jurisdiction in the country that has these laws has a responsibility to ask, ‘Who are we really protecting?’”
At least 3,278 inmates are serving life without parole in federal prisons in the nine states that provide statistics, the ACLU reported. The cost to taxpayers: nearly $1.8 billion.
Louisiana, with some of the nation’s harshest sentencing laws, houses 429 nonviolent life-without-parole prisoners—tops in the country. Groups at both ends of the ideological spectrum have asked Louisiana to change its laws to allow discretion in such cases rather than force life sentences for crimes as minor as possession of a single crack rock.
“Mandatory minimum sentences create arbitrary outcomes by drawing essentially trivial lines between degrees of criminal activity that can result in dramatic differences in punishment,” noted an October report about Louisiana by a coalition of conservative groups. “[T]here are numerous potential reforms that might reduce the state’s prison population and corrections expenditures without compromising public safety.”
And in August, Attorney General Eric Holder ordered federal prosecutors to save mandatory sentences for more serious offenders.
“We must ensure that our most severe mandatory minimum penalties are reserved for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers,” Holder wrote in a memorandum on the issue. “Long sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses do not promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation.”
Several states also are considering reforms to mandatory sentencing laws, Gupta said. Such laws negate the role of a judge, she said.
“It puts all the sentencing power in the hands of the prosecutor,” she said. “In case after case after case, judges have said on the record they were upset but their hands were tied.”
In Tyler's case, he pleaded guilty to two LSD-related drug crimes after his public defender told him those pleas would get him a reduced sentence of 21 years. Instead, he was sentenced to mandatory life without parole on each count because of his priors.
Tyler has served 21 years in prison and told the ACLU that he lost his mind after the first 10 years. He has repeatedly been held in isolation—leading to a mental breakdown so severe that in March 2013, he was found singing at the top of his lungs in his jail cell, naked and spreading feces all over himself.
"Life, it says, but life means you die in prison," Tyler told the ACLU.