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Sentencing Project Report Examines Increasing Number of Life Sentences

by Derek Gilna

The non-profit Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project released a report in May 2017, titled “Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences,” that explores the high number of prisoners serving life sentences despite declining prison populations across the nation. According to the report, “The number of people serving life sentences in U.S. prisons is at an all-time high.”

In 2016, a staggering 161,957 prisoners were serving life sentences, both with and without parole, constituting one of every nine state and federal prisoners. Further, an additional 44,311 prisoners were serving “virtual” or life-equivalent sentences of at least 50 years, for a total of 206,268 people or 13.9 percent of the prison population.

Not surprisingly, the report notes, “The majority are male (96.7%), most are people of color (67.6%), and nearly all (91.5%) have been convicted of a violent offense.... Nearly half (48.3%) of life and virtual life-sentenced individuals are African American, equal to one in five black prisoners overall.” Further, around 12,000 prisoners are serving life or life-equivalent sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles.

The increase in life and virtual life sentences constitutes a quadrupling of such sentences since 1984, roughly tracking the rise in national incarceration rates. The report notes, however, that the growth in life sentences has continued even as overall incarceration rates have dropped over the past decade.

What has driven this continuing increase? According to the report, “One driver is fear: singular stories provoke a desire for safety because of their cruelty and violence, and too often set the tone for crime policy and practice.” Another factor, related to the first, is political – with elected officials being wary of reducing sentences when additional crimes committed by released prisoners will result in public backlash.

The report argues that “There is a tendency to generalize the outcome of a single released prisoner who goes on to commit a violent crime as indicative of all prisoners if they are given the chance. In reality, these tragic outcomes are rare, and even more so among people serving life sentences despite the gravity of their original crime.”

Indeed, prior research has found that prisoners convicted of murder have some of the lowest average recidivism rates.

Another possible factor contributing to the increase in life-sentenced prisoners is a corresponding decline in death sentences in recent years, with juries being more inclined to impose life with or without parole instead of the death penalty in capital cases. [See: PLN, Dec. 2017, p.47].

The Sentencing Project report also notes that other studies have shown that increasing the length of incarceration does not increase public safety after a certain point due to the diminishing returns of punishment, as “the expansive and somewhat arbitrary use of imprisonment weakens its general deterrence value.” As noted by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder during a 2013 speech to the American Bar Association, “too many Americans go to prisons for too long and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” 


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