by Barry Burch Jr.
Despite a growing number of opinions in favor of reduced sentences for nonviolent offenders, those with life sentences continue to receive the cold shoulder. David Sloan, who was paroled in February after serving 25 years for murder, and serves on the board of the Life Support Alliance (a California group that advocates for the rights of people serving life sentences), is trying to put an end to that.
A quarter of a century ago, Sloan lost his temper and killed a man who tried to knock him off his motorcycle. Though at the time Sloan said, “In my mind, it was the right thing to do,” today, he says he deeply regrets the decision. “I believe that people have the possibility to change,” he said. “I’ve seen that a lot.”
It was in prison that Sloan came to the realization that he was wrong.
According to the Huffington Post, the number of people serving life sentences in American prisons has increased by 12 percent since 2008. And the number of individuals serving life without parole has made an even more significant leap; now up 22 percent. While most who are serving life are doing so due to convictions of homicide or sexual assault, life sentences have also been given for property crimes (5,416 prisoners) and drug crimes (2,686). In Idaho and Washington, nearly 50 percent of all “lifers” are in prison for nonviolent offenses.
Life sentences gained popularity in the 1980s, when politicians began stomp-speaking on the “tough on crime” philosophy.
Sloane; however, along with a number of prison-reform advocates, share a core belief that people convicted of serious crimes are capable of profoundly changing their lives.
Sloan, who was arrested three days after a vicious shooting spree in which he says he “went into a rage” after someone tried to kick him across the chest, began serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole. He hopes his story can serve as an example. The possibility of freedom is what helped motivate him to “work toward self-improvement,” he said.
In route to his freedom, Sloane began corresponding with the director of the Life Support Alliance. The two are now married.
“Had I known him at the time he committed his crime, he would not have been the type of person I would have wanted to be around,” said Vanessa Nelson-Sloane. “But now he looks at himself so deeply and he makes me look at myself more.”
“Once a guy hits 50, the recidivism rate starts to plummet,” she said, “and many longtime lifers are well over the age of 50.”
“Are all of these guys suitable for parole?” she continued. “Absolutely not. But we do think there are a lot of lifers who are.”