By JOHN TIERNEY
Of the 140,000 prisoners serving life sentences in the United States, about 41,000 have no chance at parole, a result of laws that eliminated parole in the federal system and for many state prisoners. These rules, along with the mandatory sentences decreed for some crimes and some repeat offenders, were intended to make punishment both stricter and fairer, but judges complain that the rigid formulas too often result in injustice. Here are four prisoners sentenced to life without parole by judges who did not believe the punishment fit the crime.
The first two times Kenneth Harvey was caught with drugs in California, he was given probation. Then, to earn $300, at the age of 24 he took a flight in 1989 from Los Angeles to Kansas City to deliver a vial of cocaine strapped to his leg. This time he went to prison for good.
When Judge Howard Sachs imposed the mandatory sentence of life without parole in federal court in Missouri, he said he was troubled by the disproportionate punishment.
“I do not think it was fully understood or intended by Congress in cases of this nature,” the judge said, “but there is no authority that I know of that would permit a different sentence by me.”
The judge recommended that Mr. Harvey be considered for clemency after he served 15 years in prison — a recommendation that was later seconded by the appeals court, which urged prosecutors to deliver the recommendation to the federal office in charge of clemency. But his 15th anniversary passed, and his clemency petition was denied.
“I do not like my current situation, but I got myself here,” Mr. Harvey, now 47, wrote in a recent e-mail from his prison in Beaumont, Tex. While saying he did not want to blame anyone else, he judged his life sentence unfair, “especially when compared with child molesters, rapists, murderers and those along that line.” After more than 22 years behind bars, he wrote, “I feel very strongly that I’ve been rehabilitated.”
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