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."
In his early 20s, Scott Walker became addicted to methamphetamine and paid for his habit by selling drugs along with friends in Carbondale, Ill. When he was found guilty of being part of a conspiracy to distribute marijuana and meth, it was his first felony conviction, but federal law required Judge J. Phil Gilbert to impose a sentence he considered "excessive and disproportionate."
"Maybe somewhere down the line Congress will relieve the people in your position," he said to Mr. Walker, then 26, at the sentencing hearing in 1998. Today Mr. Walker is 41, and Judge Gilbert looks back on the sentencing as "one of the most difficult moments in my judicial career." The judge, a former prosecutor, has written a letter toPresident Obamasupporting a commutation of the sentence, and praising Mr. Walker's record as a model prisoner.
"His unbroken spirit in the face of a life sentence is an example of the human spirit at its strongest," Judge Gilbert wrote. "As a judge, as a citizen and as a taxpayer, I see no reason that this individual should spend the rest of his natural life incarcerated."
After the drug-related death of his mother, a heroin addict, Reynolds Wintersmith moved to his grandmother's home, which was a brothel and a crack house. There, as a teenager, he was taught to cook crack by his aunts. He spent a little more than a year in a drug ring selling crack in Rockford, Ill., until being locked up shortly after his 19th birthday on drug-conspiracy charges.
"You were 17 years old when you got involved in this thing," Judge Philip G. Reinhard said to Mr. Wintersmith when he imposed the mandatory sentence in federal court. "This is your first conviction, and here you face life imprisonment. I think it gives me pause to think that was the intent of the Congress." He urged Mr. Wintersmith to "hope something will change in the law."
Mr. Wintersmith is now 38 and has spent half his life in prison, becoming a highly regarded tutor and counselor who helps other prisoners prepare to return to society. He looks back on his teenage self as a social menace but also as someone quite foreign. "I am no longer that person," he said. "I ask only for a chance to contribute as a positive, productive human being in society."
Robert Riley was a follower of the Grateful Dead who sometimes sold drugs to fellow Deadheads in the 1970s and '80s. Convicted several times for possession of small amounts of marijuana and amphetamines, he spent short periods in county jails in California and Wisconsin. In 1993, he was convicted in a federal court in Iowa of conspiring to distribute hits of LSD dissolved on pieces of blotter paper.
The weight of the LSD was minuscule, but prosecutors also counted the blotter paper's weight, putting it over a 10-gram threshold that -- with the previous convictions -- meant a mandatory life sentence without parole.
At the sentencing hearing, his lawyer complained that Mr. Riley was being punished more severely than most violent criminals, even murderers. Mr. Riley described mandatory drug sentences as "governmentally sanctioned, personalized terrorism" and said, "Hopefully after my death, someone will want to read this." The judge, Ronald E. Longstaff, listened sympathetically.
"It's an unfair sentence," Judge Longstaff said as he imposed it. Nine years later, in 2002, he wrote a letter supporting a petition for presidential clemency.
"There was no evidence presented in Mr. Riley's case to indicate that he was a violent offender or would be in the future," the judge wrote. "It gives me no satisfaction that a gentle person such as Mr. Riley will remain in prison the rest of his life."
The petition was not granted. Mr. Riley, now 60, has been behind bars for 19 years.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.