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Study: 3,000 inmates serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes

CARSON CITY — An American Civil Liberties Union study released Wednesday found 3,278 inmates in the U.S. serving sentences of life in prison without parole for nonviolent crimes.

The ACLU said Nevada Department of Corrections refused to comply with a public records request so the national data does not include Nevada figures.

There are 491 Nevada inmates serving life without parole sentences, but the data did not provide a distinction between violent and nonviolent crimes. Tod Story, the executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, said the state Department of Corrections said it neither had the information nor would give it to the ACLU.

“The crimes triggering these extreme sentences are not always serious violent crimes,” said Vanessa Spinazola, legislative and advocacy director for the ACLU of Nevada.

Spinazola noted that a person in Nevada facing a fourth felony conviction of any kind “may be sentenced to die in prison.”

Many of the state’s tough-on-crime laws were passed during the 1995 legislative session when lawmakers sought “truth in sentencing” to give the public a better idea of how long sentences would last.

The national report showed that 79 percent of inmates serving life without parole sentences for non-violent crimes were convicted of drug-related offenses and 20 percent for nonviolent property crimes like theft. The study also found the 78 percent of the same inmates are black, 18 percent white and 16 percent Hispanic.

Story said the state must reconsider how it handles sentences for nonviolent crimes.

“Rehabilitation should be our first priority in these instances, not throwing away lives by throwing away the key,” he said.

Spinazola hopes that the Legislature in 2015 will look into the issue.

“The ACLU of Nevada looks forward to working with the Legislature to roll back harsh and outdated sentencing laws that destroy individuals and their families and cost our communities and the state too much money,” she said.

The Review-Journal asked the Department of Corrections to furnish the information on nonviolent inmates sought by the ACLU but received no immediate response.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com, or 775-687-3901 or on Twitter at @edisonvogel

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