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Lifers Now Exceed Entire Prison Population of 1970

The United States imprisons about 2.3 million of its residents, not counting the millions more in county jails and on probation or parole. It also holds 83 percent of the world’s prisoners serving life sentences without the possibility of parole (LWOP). The U.S. lifer population today stood at 206,268 — which exceeded the entire country’s prison population in 1970 of 197,245.

The study found that in 24 states there were now more people serving life in prison than who were in prison for all crimes back in 1970, and an additional nine states were within 100 people of their 1970 prison population. The highest numbers were found out West, with Nevada and Utah more than quadrupling their 1970 populations (469 percent and 408 percent, respectively), with life sentences in the “deep South” states nearly doubling their 1970 prison population totals.

The study said a false belief that a person’s crime predicts his or her risk of reoffending (loosely termed “recidivism”) has driven these results. Even people serving life for murder, the authors said, desist from criminal conduct by their late 30s and 40s enough that their public-safety risk doesn’t justify a life sentence. “Therefore, from a public safety perspective, life imprisonment is an unwise investment,” the authors wrote.

The study compared data from state departments of corrections regarding the number of prisoners serving life at four points: 2003, 2009, 2012 and 2016. The trends identified showed that while prison populations declined during that span, there was a 30 percent increase in life sentences. (Writer’s note: The authors considered 50 years as a “life” sentence in those states not having a clearly defined life sentencing statute, like Alaska. Also note that in the federal system, the United States Sentencing Commission 2013 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, S-170 (2014), says “life” means 470 months, the average life span of an offender.) The study also found that LWOP sentences rose the fastest, 59 percent, compared to life with parole at 17.8 percent.

The authors noted the failure to re-evaluate the tough-on-crime policies that continue to push the rise of life sentences. Habitual offender laws, mandatory minimums, elimination of parole and the transfer of juveniles to the adult system keep life sentences going, they say.

“As states rethink their regimes on punishment so that public safety is paired with fairness, it is clearly important to adopt reforms for those individuals convicted of low-level and nonviolent crimes. But it would also be wise from a moral and fiscal standpoint, as well as the standpoint of public safety, to give a second look to those serving life sentences as well,” the authors concluded. 


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