Renaldo Hudson checked all those boxes. Originally sentenced to death for fatally stabbing a man in Chicago, his term was later commuted to life without parole, and he spent decades in the Illinois prison system. “In the prison I was in,” Hudson said recently, referring to the Danville Correctional Center, “the lifer population was probably 95 percent people of color. I knew two White guys who were ‘brothers.’ Lifers call each other brothers.”
Hudson, a 56-year-old Black man, was granted clemency by the Illinois governor last September, after 37 years in which he learned to read, earned a bachelor’s degree in Christian studies and led religious services for inmates. He also became acutely aware of the pain he had caused and the road he had traveled before committing murder. Now an advocate for the Illinois Prison Project, he is trying to help other prisoners get a second look at their sentences.
As part of an effort to end mass incarceration in the American justice system and remedy decades of racial inequity, experts are focusing on the number of aging inmates essentially sentenced to die in prison. And the study by the Sentencing Project shows that, while the number of people incarcerated as juveniles or for nonviolent offenses has declined, the number sentenced to life in prison continues to make up a significant portion of the population behind bars, with an estimated cost of $1 million per inmate for those who spend 40 years in prison.
Among the findings:
⋅ The number of women serving life sentences without parole increased 43 percent from 2008 to 2020. The number of men serving such sentences went up 29 percent during that period.
⋅ The number of inmates serving life who are 55 and older, which was more than 61,000 as of last year, has tripled since 2000. Of those people, 675 were sentenced for crimes they committed as juveniles and have served an average of 37 years. In Georgia, 45 lifers were 13 or 14 years old at the time of their crimes. Recent Supreme Court rulings banning mandatory life sentences for juveniles have resulted in many re-sentencings and a 38 percent decline in teen offenders serving life without parole since 2016.
⋅ The United States holds about 40 percent of the world’s life-sentenced population. About 15 percent of the entire U.S. prison population of 1.4 million is serving a life sentence.
“This is a sign of how unforgiving, and how unjust, the justice system is for young Black and Brown offenders,” said Karl A. Racine, the D.C. attorney general, at a news conference last month discussing the report. He noted that the District recently passed legislation allowing those who committed crime by age 24 to seek reconsideration of their terms after 15 years.
“It’s past time for jurisdictions across the country to embrace these reforms,” Racine said.
For its study, the Sentencing Project counted life sentences imposed with a chance for parole, sentences of many decades that amount to “virtual life” terms, and life sentences without parole. Life sentences without parole are “virtually unheard of elsewhere in the world,” said Ashley Nellis, the author of the study, and “imprisonment beyond 20 years is a predominantly American phenomenon.” Worldwide, the research found, 83 percent of those serving life without parole are in American prisons. Alaska is the only U.S. state that bans life without parole, the study found.
The Sentencing Project recommends that states and the federal government implement a 20-year maximum prison term except in rare circumstances. It cites the racially disproportionate issuance of life sentences, the cost of incarcerating older prisoners, the lack of a deterrent effect and studies that show a very small likelihood that a prisoner will reoffend after serving a significant term.
“We are not the sum total of the worst mistake we ever did,” said Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who oversees his state’s Board of Pardons. He noted at the news conference that Pennsylvania recently released 13 people “who were condemned to die in prison. Most never took a life” but were sentenced for felony murder, in which a person has a role in a slaying but isn’t the actual killer. “That’s a travesty. They would have served the same sentence as the ‘Tree of Life’ killer,” he said, referring to the fatal shooting of 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018. “That’s not justice.”
Some big-city prosecutors are launching “sentencing review units” and supporting motions to release people who have served decades, even those who admitted committing murder, in order to make a dent in mass incarceration and reduce the costs of medical care for prison systems. George Gascon, the newly elected district attorney of Los Angeles, told The Washington Post last year that at least 20,000 prisoners would immediately qualify to have their sentences reconsidered because they were serving overly harsh terms, were older and unlikely to reoffend, or because of coronavirus concerns.
Crime victims might be expected to oppose such amnesty and pardons for violent criminals, but victims groups have a more nuanced approach to punishment. “In our work,” said Renee Williams, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, “we have discovered that overwhelmingly survivors want to be part of the criminal justice reform conversation beyond punishment of their perpetrators and years spent in prison. In general, survivors really prioritize a safety and justice system that works — and focuses on prevention, accountability and recovery from harm rather than a ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ mentality.”
But simply eliminating all life sentences is not necessarily the answer, either, Williams said, adding that decisions on releasing prisoners should be made on a case-by-case basis. “Limiting sentences to 20 years across the board seems like a drastic, and dangerous, step to address issues with life without parole,” she said. “While we believe in redemption and rehabilitation, and that lengthy prison sentences without rehabilitation are not useful, we also believe that survivors and/or their family members deserve a seat at the table when determining what happens to the person who caused them harm.”
Sentencing review advocates agree that victims should be involved in the discussions, but they also say the current parole system and means of seeking commutations or clemency are broken. They say many harsh sentences from the 1980s and 1990s would not be handed down by judges or juries today. Nearly 4,000 people are serving life terms for drug-related convictions, more than 60 percent of those in state prisons, the rest in federal. More than 16,000 people are doing life for robbery, and 5,000 received life sentences for kidnapping, the Sentencing Project study found.
Reformers have also targeted “three strikes” laws, which mandate life sentences for a third felony conviction, and some prosecutors have said they will not use such enhancements, in part because of racial disparities in how they have been applied. In North Carolina, 81 percent of those sentenced as habitual offenders are Black, the study found. In Mississippi, 75 percent of those serving life without parole for being a habitual offender are Black, and two-thirds of the cases did not involve homicides.
The study also notes that 173 people originally given death sentences were later exonerated through the intense scrutiny that capital cases typically receive, raising questions about the number of life sentences that might have resulted from wrongful convictions.
Renaldo Hudson does not claim he was wrongly convicted. In 1983, he fatally stabbed Folke Peterson, a 72-year-old World War II Army veteran, inside Peterson’s apartment, then set the apartment on fire. Hudson, then 19, was convicted and sentenced to death, a sentence that was commuted when Illinois commuted all death sentences to life without parole in 2003.
“I wish I never did it, but I did it,” Hudson said in an interview. “It was a horrible thing, but it was the act of a drugged-out kid. I was broken,” the result of a horrific childhood in which he suffered repeated abuse and was shot by his own brother.
Jennifer Soble, Hudson’s attorney with the Illinois Prison Project, filed an emergency clemency request for Hudson last April, citing his multiple health problems including heart disease, tuberculosis and sciatic nerve damage, as well as his clean record and academic achievement in prison. Hudson is one of about 50 men and women to receive a commutation or a pardon from Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) for crimes dating to 1978, ranging from marijuana possession to murder, the Chicago Tribune reported.
“People are starting to pay attention,” Soble said. “The harm that our system of mass incarceration has imposed on communities is just undeniable.”
After his release, Hudson could have vanished. Instead, he signed on with the Illinois Prison Project because “it’s important to educate the public,” he said. “To put a human face on the tragedy of life without parole.”
For those serving such sentences, hope is a difficult concept, Hudson said. “During my early years, I struggled,” he said. “I focused on educating myself so I could understand what was happening to me, and others. My personal process wasn’t predicated on walking out of prison. I was preparing to die. I just didn’t want to be viewed as a monstrous, horrible person.”
Now he wants to help others facing death in prison. “I daily think of them, so many of them are left behind,” Hudson said.