Maryland Inmates Serving Life Sentences Make Up 10 Percent of Prison Population

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 2, 2009

More than 2,300 Maryland inmates were serving life sentences last year, nearly 10 percent of the prison population, according to an advocacy group report released this month.

Nationwide, the number of inmates serving life sentences has risen as lawmakers have promoted tougher policies on crime, jumping from 132,000 in 2005 to 140,610 last year, according to the report by the District-based Sentencing Project. That means one of every 11 prisoners nationwide is serving a life term, about the same rate as in Maryland.

The increase in inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole has been more pronounced, rising from about 12,400 in 1992 to about 41,000 last year.

The Sentencing Project, which studies inequities in the criminal justice system and promotes alternatives to prison, is using the data to encourage states to consider parole for inmates who have served considerable sentences, especially those who have taken part in life-skills, job training and other rehabilitation programs.

"We don't advocate for unreviewed release of people serving life sentences, but we do advocate for parole hearings," said Ashley Nellis, one of the report's authors. "People who have served sentences of 10 or 15 years, it's quite possible they are no longer a threat to public safety if prisons have done the job they are supposed to do, which is to reform individuals."

According to the report, about 2,100 Virginia inmates are serving life terms, nearly 6 percent of the prison population.

In federal prisons, which include D.C. inmates, about 5,400 of the 200,000 inmates are serving life terms.

The report also examines the racial breakdown of prisoners serving life sentences, as well as looking at the proportion of inmates who committed their crimes as juveniles.

Nearly 77 percent of inmates in prison for life in Maryland are African American, making it the state with the largest share of black prisoners serving life sentences. Among the 269 prisoners in Maryland sentenced to life for crimes committed when they were juveniles, 226 are black.

University of Maryland law professor Richard Boldt said the overrepresentation of minorities is "really troubling."

"There is a whole set of points throughout the system that contribute to overrepresentation of people of color," Boldt said. "It relates to policing patterns, to the provision of legal services, to the operation of the justice system. There is no one thing."

In Virginia, about 62 percent of inmates with life sentences are black. Among inmates in the state serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles, 87 of 107 are black.

Nationwide, about 48 percent of criminals serving life sentences are black, just more than 14 percent are Hispanic and about 33 percent are white.

Georgetown University law professor Paul F. Rothstein said the figures are unsurprising.

"Minorities are disproportionately incarcerated," Rothstein said. "It's a combination of factors. There's no question there is more poverty in the minority community, and that breeds crime. . . . But I suspect there is something else at work as well: There is a kind of discrimination or racial profiling going on."

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