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By Barbara Bergman
President's Column columns.
Sentencing policies in the United States are in drastic need of reform for many reasons, but in this column I want to focus on the harshness of our sentencing policies and the need for innovative alternatives.
Many have complained about the draconian nature of our sentences. Few recognize, however, that almost 132,000 of those incarcerated in the United States are serving a life sentence.1 That means that one of every eleven inmates is now serving a life term. By 1997, the actual time served by those with life sentences had increased to 29 years.2 About a third of those prisoners between 1998 and 2001 were serving time for offenses other than murder — including burglary and drug offenses. Indeed, sixteen percent of people serving life were convicted of drug trafficking.3 The composition of the population serving life sentences has changed in large part because of the frequency of imposing life for drug offenses and the “three strikes” legislation in California and other states.4
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