Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

One of Every 11 Prisoners Now Serving Life Sentence

In a July 2009 report by The Sentencing Project, a national non-profit organization engaged in research and advocacy on criminal justice policy issues, Ashley Nellis and Ryan S. King examine the consequences of the expanding use of life sentences in America and make recommendations for changes in law, policy and practice to address what the authors believe are the principal deficiencies in the sentencing of people to life in prison.

The report notes that legislators have expanded the types of offenses that result in a life sentence and established a wide range of habitual offender laws that subject a growing proportion of defendants to potential life terms. The authors note how the politics of fear has largely fueled the increasing use of life without parole (“LWOP”) sentences, an increasing willingness to impose life sentences on juveniles, an increasing reluctance on the part of parole boards and governors to release parole-eligible life prisoners and how, as a consequence, the population of life prisoners is both growing and aging, with ever-increasing costs to society. With a wealth of data, they drive home the point that racial and ethnic minorities serve a disproportionate share of life sentences. (In an appendix concerning the methodology of the study they con-ducted, the authors note but do not elaborate on the point that ethnicity and race are distinct traits. Elsewhere, they note that their study is “the first national collection of state-level life sentence data by race and ethnicity.”)

Many of the report’s key findings are worth citing: 2.3 million people are incarcerated in prisons or jails throughout the United states, a seven-fold increase since 1972; 140,610 prisoners are serving life sentences, representing one of every 11 people (9.5%) in prison; 41,095 (29% of prisoners serving life sentences) have no possibility of parole; in five states -- Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and New York -- at least one of every six prisoners is serving a life sentence; California has the highest proportion of life sentences (20%) relative to the prison population; its 34,164 life sentences are nearly a quarter of the nation’s total; two-thirds of prisoners with life sentences are non-White, reaching as high as 84% of the lifer population in the state of New York; 6,807 juveniles are serving life sentences, with more than 1/4 of those serving LWOP sentences; 77% of juveniles sentenced to life are youth of color; and 4,694 women and girls are serving life sentences, with more than 1/4 of those serving LWOP sentences.

Nationally, the authors note, nearly half (48.3%) of the lifer population is African-American. For the sake of comparison, 33.4% of the lifer population is white, while 14.4% of the lifer population is Hispanic. The authors conclude their re-port by recommending that LWOP sentences be abolished, particularly for juveniles; that, in order to prepare them for re-lease from prison, reentry programs be made more readily available to parole-eligible life prisoners; and that the process of parole be depoliticized. Source: No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America. The report is available on PLN’s website.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login