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Record Number of "Lifers" Now in U.S. Prisons

Record Number of "Lifers"
Now in U.S. Prisons

A new national study by The Sen tencing Project released on May 11, 2004, finds that a record one of every eleven (9.4%) prisoners in the United States is now serving a life sentence. The number of "lifers" nationwide 127,000 has increased by 83% since 1992. A quarter of that total is serving life without parole. The 50-state study the first of its kind also reveals that the average time to be served among lifers entering prison has jumped 37%, from 21 to 29 years (1991-97).

The study finds that the number of lifers has nearly doubled in the past decade despite a decline of 35% in violent crime rates. In nine states, over 10% of prisoners are lifers. One-fifth of all prisoners in both California and New York are sentenced to life. And in six states, and the federal system, all those sentenced to life have no possibility of parole, including more than 3,000 prisoners each in Pennsylvania and Louisiana. New York has the highest proportion (19.4%) of lifers in its prison population, although it uses life without parole sparingly.

Among the lifer population, an estimated 23,500 suffer from mental illness, the study cites; additional numbers of lifers include battered women, juveniles, and indigents who received inadequate defense representation. New policies such as "three strikes" laws have resulted in substantial additional numbers of persons serving life terms for non-violent offenses. In California, more than half (57.5%) of such cases involve life terms for non-violent offenses as a third strike.

This explosive growth in the number of lifers, the report adds, is not the result of violent crime rates but is due to: dramatic policy shifts away from judicial discretion toward more wholesale, punitive sentencing; an increase in the number and proportion of those sentenced to life without parole; the elimination or limitation of gubernatorial commutations; and legislative changes such as "truth in sentencing" that have increased the length of time served before parole consideration.

The report, The Meaning of "Life": Long Prison Sentences in Context, finds that the recidivism rate of lifers is very low: 80% of lifers released from prison stay arrest-free after three years (the highest risk period) while all other offenders have only a 32.5% arrest-free rate. The study also found it costs taxpayers $1 million to house a lifer for life and total costs are at $2.5 billion and rapidly rising.

"Many lifers have been convicted of serious crimes and present an immediate threat to public safety," the report concludes, "but many others are housed in prison long after they are dangerous due to overly restrictive parole and commutation policies." The report recommends restoration of a more individualized approach to sentencing and parole decision-making in order to distinguish among the broad range of factors regarding offenses and offenders.

The report recommends an 8-point approach to lifers and public safety, including: restoration of appropriate discretion for judges and parole boards; risk-based parole release guidelines; the elimination of life sentences for juveniles and of life without parole sentences in all but exceptional cases, and the restoration of prison programs for re-entry, such as educational and vocational preparation.

The report provides the first comprehensive, national review and profile of lifers and life sentences in the U.S., including a 50-state survey, a special profile of seven states, portraits of seven "lifers," an examination of lifer groups such as mentally ill persons, battered women, juveniles and indigents, and a look at international life sentences.

"The `get tough' movement of recent decades has adopted `one size fits all' sentencing that serves no useful purpose," stated Marc Mauer, co-author of the report and Assistant Director of The Sentencing Project. "Even in the case of lifers, there is a wide range of factors that distinguish individual offenders. Sentencing judges and parole boards need to be able to take these factors into account in order to produce fair and effective decisions."

The report, The Meaning of "Life": Long Prison Sentences in Context, by Marc Mauer, Ryan S. King, and Malcolm C. Young, is available from The Sentencing Project at The Sentencing Project is a national non-profit organization engaged in research and advocacy on criminal justice policy.

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