Report: Thousands imprisoned for life for non-violent crimes

Larry Donald Duke is serving two life sentences for trying to purchase two tons of marijuana. (ACLU photo)

Larry Donald Duke (left) is serving two life sentences for trying to purchase two tons of marijuana. (ACLU photo)

In 1989, Larry Ronald Duke tried to buy 4,800 pounds of marijuana in the Atlanta area.

Duke, who may have had a bong the size of a corn silo, bought the weed from a government informant.

He was convicted on two lengthy charges — conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute in excess of 1,000 kilograms of marijuana and attempted possession with the intent to distribute in excess of 1,000 kilograms of marijuana.

Even longer than the names of his crimes was his punishment — two life sentences.

Earlier in life, Duke was a decorated Marine who served two tours in Vietnam. He returned from the war and became a carpenter, inventor, and, according to court documents, a weed distributor with a farm in Bartow County.

Duke, now 66, has served 24 years in prison for a non-violent crime. He is currently housed in the Jesup Federal Correctional Institution in southeast Georgia. While incarcerated, he obtained a federal patent for a clean water-delivery system.

Buying that much marijuana isn’t a petty crime, but plenty of criminals will die in prison for committing non-violent crimes.

A recently released report by the American Civil Liberties Union titled “A Living Death” provides details.

  • 3,278 criminals are imprisoned for life for non-violent crimes
  • Nationally, 65 percent of the 3,278 are black
  • About 80 percent are for non-violent drug crimes
  • 83.4 percent received mandatory life sentences under “habitual offender” laws
  • The life sentences will cost taxpayers $1.8 billion

Examples of those serving life sentences for non-violent crimes include:

The ACLU report has a map detailing many other cases.

The Guardian points out many of the life sentences were handed down because the criminal had a history of minor drug convictions.

“The offenses involved can be startlingly petty. Drug cases itemized in the report include a man sentenced to die in prison for having been found in possession of a crack pipe; an offender with a bottle cap that contained a trace of heroin that was too small to measure; a prisoner arrested with a trace amount of cocaine in their pocket too tiny to see with the naked eye; a man who acted as a go-between in a sale to an undercover police officer of marijuana – street value $10,” writes The Guardian.

A reporter for The Guardian tried to speak with the jacket thief, Timothy Jackson, who is incarcerated in Louisiana. Prison officials rejected the interview by saying it might upset Jackson’s victim, a department store.

Jackson told the ACLU “I know that for my crime I had to do some time, but a life sentence for a jacket value at $159. I have met people here whose crimes are a lot badder with way less time.”

His sister was more vocal.

“This doesn’t make sense to me. I know people who have killed people, and they get a lesser sentence. That doesn’t make sense to me right there. You can take a life and get 15 or 16 years. He takes a jacket worth $159 and will stay in jail forever. He didn’t kill the jacket!” she said.

More news with long sentences:

48 comments Add your comment


November 14th, 2013
10:18 am

Would Congress please pass a Constitutional Amendment outlawing and banning the aclu, the ANTI CONSTITUTION LIBERAL UNION???

destin dawg

November 14th, 2013
10:25 am

we just can’t afford to give them room and board for life…. nonviolent .. shop lifting… without a weapon… drugs… etc. .. let ‘em out… probation should require they get a job and become a tax payer… Go Dawgs beat Auburn !!!


November 14th, 2013
10:33 am

Habitual offenders.
Think of all the crimes where they didn’t get caught.


November 14th, 2013
10:36 am

Methinks zeke actually KNOWS very little about the cases the ACLU takes on……just the rhetoric and hyperbole he reads.

Hand Full of Spades

November 14th, 2013
10:36 am

This is nuts…. The taxpayers paying all of this money toward individuals who have done less than several of our Government Officials…. Sick!!!!!

gadem also known as Benghazi

November 14th, 2013
10:37 am

Murderers do 20 maybe 25 years, and that is in extreme cases. If you have weed, you get life. The justice system is really flawed.


November 14th, 2013
10:39 am

What has happened to you do the time if you do the crime?


November 14th, 2013
10:47 am

“You do the crime, you do the time” apparently is about as far as you can think about this issue, Maude. Everything in your life must be very, very simple and it’s pretty sad you can’t see that these sentences are outrageous. Time to adjust the criminal justice system to make the punishment fit these crimes.


November 14th, 2013
10:57 am

This is Nothing New….Georgia has Historically imprisoned its own Citizens for such Petty Crimes….The Prison Rolls are FULL of such examples. Living and Dead.

The More things change ….the more they remain the same.

The Question that was NOT Asked was …What are we as Citizens are going to do about it?

Most Likely Nothing……as Usual.

Praise Jaysus….:)


November 14th, 2013
11:06 am

@Maude…I don’t think anyone is saying there should not be repercussions for crime, but it’s about outrageous sentencing. Murderers go free and shoplifters get life…really??? I am against crime…period. But this isn’t a perfect world and it has to be dealt with but not the way we are doing it. That’s all…


November 14th, 2013
11:08 am

Pretty soon half of us will be guarding the other half.


November 14th, 2013
11:08 am

True… cost the tax payers 1.8 billion to house all these people, but think of all the money that would have been spent on them on welfare, investigating all the thousands of other crimes they would have committed, all the money an potential violence they would have cost or caused to future victims. And yes…..for those of you who know nothing about criminals, if they aren’t rehabilitated or taught their lesson the first few times, they tend to commit larger and more violent crimes. I think the community and tax payers break even. The part that this article does not stress enough is those who are doing life sentences had several serious convictions before these seemingly minor offenses. And for those of you who think drugs are a nonviolent crime, just read the AJC every day and see how many people are murdered in DeKalb, Clayton, and Fulton counties over drugs EVERY SINGLE DAY!!! I think they should make drugs legal, but as long as they are illegal, they are the root of all evil!!! One last thought….when they finally do make drugs legal, what will the drug dealers do for work?, because if you think once you can buy this stuff in stores that drug dealers will just start earning an honest living, you must be smoking some good stuff!…burglars, armed robbers…….who knows??? or maybe they will just sit at home and suck more money out of the pockets of the tax payer

The Old Geezer

November 14th, 2013
11:13 am

Sounds like we need to rename our prisons as Gulogs since we now apparently live in the Soviet Union, where citizens had no constitutional rights as far as the authorities were concerned.

Class of '98

November 14th, 2013
11:15 am

Let’s not confuse “non-violent” crime with “victimless” crime. Shoplifting is not a victimless crime. The cost of everything we buy is significantly raised because of thieves like Mr. Jackson.

And when you consider that a shoplifter gets away with it over a hundred times for every time they are caught, there is no telling how much money Mr. Jackson has stolen from all of us of the course of his crooked life.

I’m not saying he should rot in jail until he dies, but please save the wailing and gnashing of teeth as if this man is an innocent victim of a corrupt system. He’s a crook, and he needs to go to jail for a while.


November 14th, 2013
11:17 am

The criminal justice system is terrible! The only thing people ever really go to prison for anymore is murder or child molestation, which are both well deserved. That is why you must think about how big of a dirt bag someone must be, when they do get a lengthy sentence in prison these days. Additionally, when someone is moving thousands of pounds of weed and coke and get caught, that most likely was not the first time they sold drugs. Therefore they have been in the game for some time. So how many lives in the drug trade have been lost as a result of the drugs they distributed or robbed someone for along the way?? Still think its a nonviolent and victimless crime?

Class of '98

November 14th, 2013
11:17 am

“we now apparently live in the Soviet Union, where citizens had no constitutional rights as far as the authorities were concerned.”

He was convicted in a court of law according to his constitutional rights, correct? What am I missing?


November 14th, 2013
11:36 am

Oh my all the bleeding hearts! They poor things were put away for life for nothing, and should just get a little slap on the wrist.

Now that the sarcasm is out of the way, when a person demonstrates over a period of time a total and complete disregard and disrespect for the law and the rights (and property) of others, that person should be put away. These people have displayed a long term pattern of behavior, not just once or twice, but a lifetime dedicated to criminality. Society should be protected from such.

We want the punishment to fit the crime, right? In accordance with that principle, drug dealers caught selling meth or heroine should be locked up for life or executed! These people deal sell a “product” that causes death and misery and untold suffering to many many families and addicts. How many addicts are dead because of a product sold by a drug dealer? And we let them off with a slap on the wrist?

Hidden agenda

November 14th, 2013
11:48 am

Zeke, maybe you would like to enlighten all of us on where in the Constitution the Federal Government is given the right ban drugs? At least the folks who wanted to ban alcohol had the proper respect for the document to pass a Constitutional amendment giving the government the authority. I have plenty of issues with the ACLU (mostly that they give democratic presidents a general pass on issues), but on this one they are spot on. Our “justice” system is a complete sham. Nobody should ever be put in jail for any consensual crime. The only crimes that should entail punishment (and I prefer restitution to the victim over retribution by the state), are ones in which a clear victim has had their person or property violated.

These non-crimes are simply a tool of oppression by the state of what should otherwise be free citizens.

Hidden agenda

November 14th, 2013
11:59 am

If you aren’t supporting the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA), who is working to educate ALL jurors of their rights in each case then you aren’t doing enough. Every juror, regardless of the lies told to you by the judge in the case, has the right under the Constitution and well-established common law, to judge not just the facts, but also the law itself. Jury nullification as it is called was heralded by greats like Thomas Jefferson as the linchpin in keeping the abusive legislatures at bay by being able to render atrocious laws null and void.

Jury nullification was critical in helping to end the Fugitive Slave Act in the 1800s and Alcohol Prohibition in the 1920s. The Supreme Court has ruled time and time again that juries have this right, and up until the 1950s every jury was told of this right. Recently New Hampshire actually passed a law FORCING every judge to inform their juries of this right. Numerous non-violent drug, gambling, and prostitution cases have already been swayed because of NH juries voting with their conscience rather than as automatons of the oppressive state persecution apparatus.

Go online and get educated. This is YOUR RIGHT as a jury member. We cannot count on the state (who makes literally trillions from these prosecutions) to ever change their ways. We as concerned citizens MUST step up and do what’s right.


November 14th, 2013
12:42 pm

I think that DUI offenders would be better served with a life sentence than shoplifters. Shoplifters don’t kill people.


November 14th, 2013
12:49 pm

The Eighth Amendment (Amendment VIII)
Prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines or cruel and unusual punishments, including torture. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause applies to the states. The phrases employed originated in the English Bill of Rights of 1689.


November 14th, 2013
1:03 pm

I guess that the justice system’s intent was to send a message as a way to deter others from committing the same crime. Well, the message is not getting through. Another thing to consider is that there is a lot of big money made through the prison system.


November 14th, 2013
1:32 pm

Turn them all loose. Then allow the 911 system to pass along the same info when call about these “non-violent crimes”. ” Hello, 911″ What? You’ve had 100 shoplifters today? Well since this is really a non violent crime, we don’t send the police, they wouldn’t be punished anyway. If they kill soemone, pls call back. Thank you and have a nice day. (hangs up.)


November 14th, 2013
1:47 pm

2 TONS of marijuana?? And he’s wondering why he got so long in jail??


November 14th, 2013
1:57 pm

It’s better than cutting off his hands like the ragheads do.


November 14th, 2013
2:01 pm

I think if you look at these people’s criminal history they are lengthy with numerous arrests. It probably wasn’t for this one particular crime, rather they are habitual criminals.


November 14th, 2013
2:38 pm

If you are cool with mandatory sentences, then you are nothign but a sheep.


November 14th, 2013
2:47 pm

@ Justice – Your comments don’t address the real issue – why a shoplifter or a 22 year old convicted of 3 small petty theft crimes got much longer sentences than rapists, child molesters, child abusers and even some murderers. Regardless of the view that repeat offenders need to do their jail time, we need to address why the various sentences often appear to be illogical.

Regarding the recent death of the child who was burned and placed in the dumpster in Gwinnett – her Mom had been convicted previously of child cruelty. I wonder if she served any time for that conviction. Perhaps the girl would be alive now if she had served time.


November 14th, 2013
2:49 pm

you did the crime, serve the time.


November 14th, 2013
2:50 pm

Don’t even bring up jurors. In some of the worst areas, where criminals really need to be put away, the pool of jurors is so ignorant or their minds are so criminalized by their own actions or by the behavior of their family members that it does not matter how much evidence is given to them by the prosecutors, they will still find someone not guilty!!!! I’m a firm believer that we should have educated, trained, professional jurors to decide these cases…..Perhaps a panel of attorneys, police officers, judges other law professionals, who actually understand the law and evidence. I know you are going to throw Constitutional Rights out there, which I understand, but even our President doesn’t care about those bunch of papers…….lol

I C Crzy People

November 14th, 2013
3:01 pm

Another thing to consider is that there is a lot of big money made through the prison system.

Bingo! That’s why people are getting these exorbitant sentences — because someone within the judicial system, (judge, prosecutor, etc.) is getting kickbacks by the people BUILDING the jails.

There was a case about this in Pennsylvania a few years back — juvenile judge was throwing the book at kids (and therefore totally ruining their lives); and was caught getting kickbacks from the Juvenile detention facility.

His wife was also on the BOARD of said facility.


November 14th, 2013
3:03 pm

I believe if u commit a crime, sure u serve the time. But let’s be reasonable here. LIFE 4 shoplifting is inhuman. Sure he needs to be punished, but NOT 4 his entire LIFE. Selling or purchasing drugs is NOT what I consider a LIFE sentence either. We have more ducks to shoot down like the heavier crime intenders such as those u all have mentioned. Murder is taking someone’s LIFE. Rape is taking someone’s mental capacity. Shoplifting and selling drugs does not compare to either of these. My rapist was set free after serving only 2 years, found me, stalked me, threaten me more and NOTHING was done.He finally past away a year ago. I say he should’ve been locked up, given hard labor until he died, becaus e he had raped many young girls, him along with the other heavy crime participates. U can’t give LIFE back once u have taken it. U can pay 4 a jacket any day of the week. U have a choice of either getting a job or selling drugs, if u choose the WRONG one, life sentences are STILL way to cruel. U will never see that person change and become a better person. Just imagine these people are related to you. Then think about it again. The Justice System has been failing us all forever, whats new?


November 14th, 2013
3:08 pm

Two tons of marijuana? No wonder we have a drug problem in this country.

On another note, there’s lots of research and discussion about the costs of incarceration, but could we please focus some attention on “crime cost avoidance” that results from incapacitating criminals? For example, how many more tons would this criminal have introduced into our community had he not been incarcerated?


November 14th, 2013
3:12 pm

Those of you who say “do the crime, do the time” are leaving out the important question, what should the “time” be and for what offenses. There are many variations among laws, judges, etc.

So, if your daughter’s rapist served about one year and the 21 year old down the street got a life sentence for petty thievery, you really think that is right? What about all the people who are not “serving the time” because the system is so wacky. What about all those people who serve no time because the jail is full at the time of their expected incarceration?


November 14th, 2013
4:33 pm

“80 publicly executed in North Korea for the crime of having videos, Bibles”

Agree life in prison for non-violent crime is extreme and absurd. But apparently in the workers’ paradise of North Korea they’d consider prison too lenient, instead they’d just stand you up against a wall.


November 14th, 2013
4:33 pm

Ive always said that if I do anything illegal that goes on my record it will be for at least 10 million a case. Not getting my record spotty for the small stuff. Just saying.

This is so wrong. SMH.

Hidden agenda

November 14th, 2013
4:37 pm

Drugs are only manufactured/grown because individuals wish to use them. Either you own your own body or the government does. The war on drugs MUST end. The government has superimposed a police state upon our free country mostly justified by the criminal war on drugs. Hold people responsible for their actions – regardless of their state of sobriety. Otherwise, leave people alone. The CIA imports and distributes tons more heroin, cocaine, and marijuana than all of these drug dealers combined. They are primarily responsible for starting the crack epidemic in this country during the 90s. Well documented. The only people who really get rich from the war on drugs is the government and the prison-industrial complex.


November 14th, 2013
4:48 pm

Tom (@10:36a) No, he , I, and thousands of others need your knowledgeble input so we all can be well-informed. Please do us a favor and tell us the details.

Auntie Christ

November 14th, 2013
4:54 pm

You can bet your bippy that everyone of the posters defending these harsh, insane sentences are tea baggers whose constant mantra is “big gummint, oppressive gummint, etc” because we are trying to get healthcare for everyone and ensure high educational standards. Also, they will be the first to whine “I was only doing 75 in a 50mph zone, and those SOB’s fined me $150. That’s outrageous! This stinkin’ gummint sux!” When confronted with real examples of ‘big gummint’ like those cited here, it’s just a big yawn to them. They claim we are becoming the USSR because they are expected to pay taxes and obey the law, but when the tactics employed by the USSR toward ‘criminals’ is employed in their own country, ‘meh, they deserve it.’ It’s hard to say which is more egregious with these tea baggers, their stupidity or their blatant, naked hypocrisy.

And for those same hypocrites who support these draconian drug laws, always quick to point out the “death and destruction” they cause, their willful ignorance and disregard for the deaths and destruction wrought by legal drugs is risible. Alcohol, cigarettes, and abuse of prescription drugs have caused more misery, death and destruction in this country than weed, coke and meth ever will.

We don’t have a criminal justice system in this country, we have a criminal justice economy, with the drug laws generating $Billions for lawyers, bail bondsmen, and private prisons, not to mention that fines and prison labor generate tons of money for these small backward counties with no tax base to speak of. In Jawja, a drug user convicted in state court will spend 90+ days in a county jail before heading to a state prison. The state pays the county a stipend of $90/day to house these state prisoners, That’s an average of about $9,000/ per prisoner the county receives for each prisoner they house. If the county needs to raise money, they aren’t going to raise ad valorem rates on its citizens, they’ll just bust a few 18 year olds with a few grams of weed or coke, and fine them out the wazoo and convict them to prison sentences. That, tea baggers is what ‘big gummint’ looks like, not your narcicistic notion that you are over taxed and over regulated.

Legalizing these drugs is bad business practice as far as they are concerned. After all, who wants to kill the goose with golden eggs.

Chris Salzmann

November 14th, 2013
5:26 pm

This is NUTS!!! Do any of you realize how much it costs to put up ONE person in custody??? The Even if its a habitual offender, imprisoning them will cost the taxpayer FAR MORE than the actual crime. Another way must be found. This is INSANE!!!! Complete and needless waste of taxpayer money.

Plus the fact that the goons on Wall Street have robbed this country of TRILLIONS and not one of those responsible was ever put in prison. I guess “Land of the Free” applies only to them!

Mama Says

November 14th, 2013
6:00 pm

This isn’t about “petty crimes” this is about what to do with habitual offenders. Yes life for a $ 159 dollar theft sounds extreme until you look at the number of times these folks repeat. What do you do when they will not stop stealing ? They are taking someone else’s property every time. What do you do with the Marine who is buying that much dope ? He can’t be buying it just to smoke himself. Chances are that dope ends up in the hands of kids.

Really what do you do ?


November 14th, 2013
6:00 pm

You all do understand that this was his fourth, I repeat, fourth, felony conviction, right? He isn’t in jail for life for just stealing a $159 jacket, but because he committed and was convicted of three previous felonies. How many bites at the apple you want to give a fellow before you conclude that he isn’t capable of living in society and needs to be incarcerated for life. Five, six, seven felonies? Maybe 8 is the magic number. Or maybe you just think his track record is irrelevant and you would love to have him move in next door.

Auntie Christ

November 14th, 2013
6:28 pm

From the AJC: Bennett gets 30 months for lake crash that killed brothers
… Paul Bennett was found guilty of boating under the influence and reckless operation of a vessel in the crash that killed the Prince brothers.(aged 9 and 13).

Bennett, 45, of Cumming, was sentenced to 30 months in prison, followed by 18 months on probation and 400 hours of community service

Yeah that seems fair, life w/o parole for shop lifting, 30 months for killing 2 children with his drunk operation of a boat. Nothing wrong with our criminal ‘justice’ system, is there?

Auntie Christ

November 14th, 2013
6:35 pm

Mama Says @ 6 PM “He can’t be buying it just to smoke himself. Chances are that dope ends up in the hands of kids.”
Why would a kid pay $300 for an oz of weed when all they have to do is go to your refrigerator and get all the alcohol they can drink, or go to your medicine cabinet and get enough downers and uppers to stay high for weeks. Go ask Alice.


November 14th, 2013
6:55 pm

Permanent and LARGE tattoos on all of these people so that everyone will immediately know they are CRIMINALS.


November 15th, 2013
6:44 am

These cases illustrate the need to change mandatory sentencing laws. Judges know better than to dole out unreasonable sentences but their hands are tied by unreasonable laws. Until these mandatory sentencing laws are changed, it’s the duty of juries to invalidate these unreasonable laws. These cases are sickening. No one should get life without parole for a marijuana offense or shoplifting. It is cruel and inhumane.

Taxi Smith

November 15th, 2013
7:42 am

Once again we are reminded of the essential idiocy of the American criminal justice system.

Voice of Insanity

November 15th, 2013
2:59 pm

1,400,000 Georgians are convicted felons. 1,400,000 Georgians are convicted felons. 1,400,000 Georgians are convicted felons. Our total population is 9,900,000. 14% of Georgians have been convicted of a felony, which means if you know 1000 people, on average, 140 of them have been convicted of a felony. Georgia’s legal system is broken.