The government is spending billions to keep nonviolent offenders in prison deep into old age.
The American Civil Liberties Union released a report that found 3,278 people are facing life sentences without parole for committing crimes such as stealing a $159 jacket or serving as a middleman in the sale of $10 of marijuana.
David Lincoln Hyatt, a 63-year-old Vietnam veteran and father of six who is dying of prostate cancer, is one the people who will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Hyatt was arrested in 1993 for allegedly partaking in a nonviolent drug conspiracy. The FBI suspected Hyatt, who owned a record label at the time, of assisting a former employee in transporting cocaine via a tractor-trailer from Miami to New York.
The elderly veteran claims that he is innocent and remembers that day that he was convicted as a “big surprise and a nightmare.”
Hyatt’s life sentence for his supposed involvement in the drug scheme is a result of legislation from the 1980s that mandates harsh minimum sentences for crime, as part of an outcry against lenient sentencing by judges.
Judges are legally obligated to uphold these minimum sentences, even if they do not believe the crime the defendant is accused of matches the penalty.
The judge who presided over Hyatt’s trial, David D. Dowd Jr., was one such judge who did not believe Hyatt’s convictions merited a life sentence.
Upon sentencing, Judge Dowd Jr. stated, “I think like almost every other District Court Judge in the United States, at times we have expressed frustration with the straightjacket the Guidelines represent, but clearly that’s a decision that’s way beyond the power of this Court to make.”
The judge later admitted that if it were not for the mandatory minimum sentence guidelines, he “would have imposed a sentence less than a life sentence.”
The average expense to maintain a federal prisoner per year ranges between $25,000 and $30,000, and the expense rises steeply with the prisoner’s age because of increased medical expenses. Researches estimate that an elderly prisoner costs between $60,000 and $70,000 a year.
According to the ACLU, the total fiscal cost-savings to taxpayers if state and federal sentencing statutes were revised to eliminate nonviolent offenses for eligibility for life without parole sentences would be at least $1.784 billion.
Hyatt is both an elderly and sick prisoner. He receives daily chemotherapy treatments for his stage four prostate cancer and his prognosis is getting worse.
In an application for a compassionate release in 2012, Hyatt explained that he wanted to spend his last living days with his family. He says, that you do not realize “how important you are to your kids and family and how their lives change forever once you are arrested and gone this long.”
Judge Dowd Jr. once again came to Hyatt’s defense, stating that “I question whether the life sentence that I was required to pronounce makes good policy in the long run.”
Even with the support of the judge, the government says his request must first go through the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals before any decisions are made.
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