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The Sentencing Project, a New Lease on Life, 2021

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A New Lease on Life



For more information, contact:
The Sentencing Project
1705 DeSales Street NW
8th Floor
Washington, D.C. 20036
(202) 628-0871

This report was written by Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., Senior Research Analyst,
and Breanna Bishop, Communications Associate, at The Sentencing
Project. Skye Liston, Research Fellow at The Sentencing Project
contributed to the editing of this report and development of video
We are deeply grateful for the stories of released lifers that make up
the foundation of this research. In particular, Andrew Hundley, Ralph
Brazel, Michael Mendoza, Joyce Granger, Louis Gibson, John Pace,
Jacob Brevard, and Zerious Meadows have shared their stories with
us. Impacted persons’ participation illustrates the potential for personal
reformation as well as the harms done by long-term imprisonment.
The Sentencing Project promotes effective and humane responses to
crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and
adults by promoting racial, ethnic, economic, and gender justice.
The Sentencing Project gratefully acknowledges Arnold Ventures for
their generous support of our research to end extreme sentences.

Cover image: Kareem McCraney greets his mother after serving 22
years in prison. Photo courtesy of Unchained Stories.

Copyright © 2021 by The Sentencing Project. Reproduction of this
document in full or in part, and in print or electronic format, only by
permission of The Sentencing Project.

2 The Sentencing Project

Findings and Recommendations


What is Recidivism?
The Role of the Age-Crime Curve in Understanding Recidivism Trends
The Impact of America’s Legacy of Racism on Criminal Punishment


Review of the Criminological Evidence on Recidivism
National Evidence Shows Low Rates of Violent-Crime Recidivism
State-Level Recidivism Data Supports Low Levels of Reoffending for Violent Crime
International Evidence Supports Low Rates of Recidivism for Violent Crime


American Exceptionalism


Coming Home with Low Risk and High Needs




A New Lease on Life 3

I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also much
more than that. So are we all.
— James Baldwin

A dramatic consequence of America’s investment in
mass incarceration is life imprisonment. Today there
are more people serving life sentences alone than the
entire prison population in 1970, the dawn of the mass
incarceration era. Though life sentences have always
been allowable in the U.S., it is only in recent decades
that these sentences have become normalized to such
an extent that entire prisons are now filled or nearly filled
with people serving life terms.
Despite a cultural tendency for Americans to view the
U.S. crime and criminal legal system as “exceptional,”
other countries have experienced ebbs and flows in
crime rates but have not resorted to the levels of
imprisonment, nor the lengths of prison sentences, that
are commonplace in the U.S. To the contrary, restoration
of human dignity and the development of resilience are
at the core of an evolved criminal legal system; systems
elsewhere that emphasize the responsibility of
government support to returning citizens serves as a
model for the U.S.
In this report we set out to accomplish two tasks. First,
we examine reoffending rates among people released
from prison after a violent crime conviction and review
research on the topic, covering both domestic and
international findings. Second, we provide personal
testimony from people who have left prison after a violent
crime conviction. Inviting impacted persons to share
their transition experiences serves policymakers and
practitioners in strengthening necessary support for
successful and satisfying reentry from prison. This report
focuses on the outcomes of a narrow segment of the
prison population: people convicted of violent crimes,

4 The Sentencing Project

including those sentenced to life and virtual life sentences,
who have been released to the community through parole
or executive clemency. People with violent crime
convictions comprise half the overall state prison
population in the U.S. They are depicted as the most
dangerous if released, but ample evidence refutes this.

We can safely release people from prison who have
been convicted of violent crime much sooner than
we typically do. Most people who commit homicide
are unlikely to do so again and overall rates of violent
offending of any type among people released from
a life sentence are rare.


Definitional limitations of the term “recidivism”
obstruct a thorough understanding of the true
incidence of violent offending among those released
from prison, contributing to inaccurate estimates of


People exiting prison from long term confinement
need stronger support around them. Many people
exhibit a low crime risk but have high psychological,
financial, and vocational demands that have been
greatly exacerbated by their lengthy incarceration.


People exiting prison after serving extreme sentences
are eager to earn their release and demonstrate their
capacity to contribute in positive ways to society.
Prison staff and peers view lifers as a stabilizing
force in the prison environment, often mentoring
younger prisoners and serving as positive role

We make five recommendations that, if adopted, will
advance our criminal legal system toward one that is
fair, efficient, and humane.
1. Standardize definitions of recidivism.
Authors of government reports and academic studies
should take great care to standardize the definition of
criminal recidivism so that practitioners, policymakers,
the media, and other consumers of recidivism research
do not carelessly interpret findings on reoffending
statistics without digging into either the meaning or the
accuracy of the statements.
2. Insist on responsible and accurate media coverage.
Media consumers and producers alike must insist on
accurate portrayals of crime despite the temptation to
skew media coverage so that rare violent crime events
appear as commonplace. Heavily skewed media
coverage of rare violent crime events creates a misleading
view of the frequency of violent crime. Add to this the
overly simplistic assumption, allowed by inarticulate
reporting, that people released from prison have caused
upticks in violence.

punishes the individual for a crime for which they have
already been sanctioned. Risk of criminal conduct, even
violent criminal conduct, closely tracks aging such that
as people age into adulthood there is a sharp decline in
proclivity to engage in additional acts of violence.
5. Substantially improve housing support.
Inability to secure housing after release from prison was
mentioned frequently by people we interviewed for this
report. Failure of the correctional system to ensure stable
housing upon exit from decades-long prison sentences
imposes unnecessary challenges. Though some released
persons will be able to rely on nonprofit charity
organizations, shelters, or family, the most vulnerable
people will fall through the cracks. We have both a public
safety and a humanitarian obligation to avoid this result.

3. Allow some level of risk.
Reset the acceptable recidivism rate to allow for
reasonable public safety risk. The public’s risk expectation
is currently set at zero, meaning that no amount of
recidivism is politically acceptable in a system that
“works” even though such expectations are not attainable
in any sphere of human endeavor or experience. But this
expectation is largely based on highly tragic and
sensationalized events that are falsely equated as the
result of releasing people from prison. We have to
balance our aspirations for a crime-free society with
reasonable approaches to public safety and human
rights considerations for both those who have caused
harm and those who have been victimized by it.
4. Reform and accelerate prison release mechanisms.
Decisionmakers considering whether to grant prison
release rely too heavily on the crime of conviction as the
predominant factor under consideration. This approach
is neither fair nor accurate. It is unfair because it re-

A New Lease on Life 5

In the summer of 1997, 15-year-old Andrew
Hundley killed another teen in Mowata, Louisiana.
His case went to trial and he received a lifewithout-parole (LWOP) sentence. In 2016, at
age 35, his sentence was commuted to time
served and he was released. Hundley was the
first of more than 200 Louisianans serving LWOP
for crimes committed while young who have
been released since a series of landmark
Supreme Court rulings invalidated the LWOP
sentences of some 2,000 people.1
From the time of his release Hundley has
devoted his freedom to helping remaining
qualified lifers earn a meaningful opportunity
for release. Within a year of his own freedom
he founded and now runs the Louisiana Parole
Project, a 501(c)(3) organization that serves as
a critical bridge between prison and life on the
outside. The organization defines itself as a
human services provider and advocacy
organization, working to reduce recidivism
through second chances for released lifers and
others who have served 20 years or more. As
in other states, those exiting prison from a
former life sentence exhibit very low rates of

6 The Sentencing Project

Understandably, policymakers, practitioners, and
researchers seek results-oriented crime policies.
Unfortunately, the key measure of “successful”
imprisonment — recidivism — is frequently poorly
constructed. Definitional issues plague an accurate
understanding of what is meant by recidivism and
measurement errors abound in the research. Florida
State University criminologist Gerald Gaes and colleagues
from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and Abt Associates,
which collect and analyze the nation’s largest corrections
datasets, write extensively on these and other pitfalls
of “relying blithely on recidivism data without investigating
the underlying criteria.”3
Sometimes recidivism refers to arrest, other times it is
reconviction, and for others it is a return to prison either
for a parole violation or a new crime conviction. All of
these measures of recidivism tell a different story. For
instance, one might be arrested but never convicted, as
is often the case, so if recidivism is considered only at
the point of arrest it is a gross overestimate of criminal
Another problematic feature of many recidivism studies
is the inclusion of technical violations. Sometimes
technical violations of parole are included in studies of
overall recidivism rates but not always.4 These have the
effect of distorting outcomes as well, since technical
violations are noncriminal activities that violate the
conditions of parole such as leaving a certain radius
without first obtaining a “travel pass” or failing to register
a new email address, but these activities are not unlawful
in and of themselves.5 They are also largely irrelevant
as a measure of public safety. Decomposition of prison
return data often reveals that a high proportion of returns
to prison originate from technical violations.6
Reincarceration for such rule infractions is problematic
and discouraged by international bodies. In its 1994
guidance report on life imprisonment, the United Nations
cautioned against returns to prison which were not
entirely necessary for public safety: “No assessment

procedure can guarantee that a released prisoner will
not relapse into crime…[the process of returning someone
to prison] requires the most stringent application of the
principles of fairness. Those to whom it applies have
already served the period of imprisonment deemed
sufficient as punishment, and have been assessed as
posing no further risk to society. There should therefore
be powerful, yet challengeable reasons for re-detention.’”7
Another inconsistency in recidivism research is the
degree to which crime types are specified.8 Some studies
make no delineation regarding crime type, others make
a binary distinction of violent/nonviolent, and others
provide detailed specifications of crime type.
Consider research findings by John Moore and Jacob
Eikenberry which analyzed outcomes of 18,947 released
individuals from the Iowa Department of Corrections
over a three-year period. Crime type was critically
important, with the highest proportion of those who
returned to prison with a new crime having been convicted
of a drug crime, much more so than those initially
imprisoned for a violent conviction.9
Recidivism figures, especially those utilized by media,
do not routinely distinguish violent from nonviolent
reoffending but there are critical reasons to do so. Even
within the category of crimes classified as violent there
are important distinctions to consider. Acts of violence
like homicide committed spontaneously, out of passion,
are different from those with the premeditated intention
to cause harm to another. Both types are decidedly
different from conduct that constitutes a means to an
end, such as a robbery committed to obtain money to
serve an underlying drug addiction but that results in an
unplanned homicide (e.g., felony murder).10 The criminal
legal system response--particularly during incarceration-should not be a one-size-fits-all approach wherein all
crimes are responded to identically and interpreted as
presenting the same level of risk of offending.
Research that disentangles types of homicide shows
important differences in recidivism. Pieter Baay, Marieke
A New Lease on Life 7

Liem, and Paul Nieubeerta’s research distinguishes
between four underlying conditions in murders in their
recidivism study: intentional homicide, felony murder,
family violence, and arguments with those outside the
family (e.g., barroom brawl). They conclude that
specificity matters: people who had been convicted of
an unplanned murder committed spontaneously during
a felony were less likely to recidivate with a new violent
offense and those whose homicide was related to family
violence were also less likely to recidivate than those
who committed intentional homicide.11
Sophisticated risk categories based on homicide type
have been established by New Jersey researchers using
administrative crime data with typologies grouped into
one of various categories. Findings showed that both
rates of recidivism and types of recidivism varied with
differences in original homicide, again illustrating the
need for specification of crime type and recidivism type.12
The best studies disentangle all these possibilities
because of their unique contribution to the incarcerationcrime relationships.
Another inconsistency in defining recidivism comes
about as a result of the misuse of prosecutorial discretion.
Specifically, in instances where prosecutors may decide
against charging an individual for a new crime because
of the cost and time saved from doing so; instead, more
prison time is added to the revocation itself, so
admissions might be coded as revocation as the cause
when in fact a new crime was committed but is not
specified in the prison records.13
The time frame between prison release and return to
the criminal legal system also matters. Though most
studies observe conduct for up to three years14 sometimes
five years and even as far as nine years have been used.15
In well-articulated research, all of these differences are
clearly articulated. Standardization should be the goal.

Some of the reluctance to release people with violent
convictions originates from a misunderstanding,
promulgated by media sensationalism of select crimes,
that all persons released from prison run the same risk
of committing a new crime. Related to this is the

8 The Sentencing Project

assumption that crime rises are caused by people who
have been released from prison. Neither is empirically
It is a criminological fact that violent conduct occurs in
somewhat predictable ways over the life course, with
proclivity toward criminal behavior among at-risk
individuals rising from late adolescence to the mid-20s
and dropping precipitously after. Robert Sampson and
John Laub’s seminal research on crime over an individual’s
life course identified six distinct age-crime patterns,
ranging from a peak crime age of 16 among those
identified as “low-rate chronic” to “a peak age of 40
among those identified as “high-rate chronic.”16 But even
among so-called “chronic offenders’’ it appears that the
vast majority will stop committing crime by their 40s
and their later offenses are typically low-level “nuisance
Research on minors who have frequent involvement
with the system starting from an early age suggests that
even these individuals eventually desist from crime.
Though it may take longer, desistance from crime is the
typical outcome. Some crime will happen. Rather than
assigning blame to the individuals themselves when
new offenses are committed by youth who were
previously incarcerated, we should acknowledge the
harms done by incarceration at an early age. Their
experiences while incarcerated may explain why young
people released from prison sometimes take longer to
Despite these known trajectories of crime, prisons are
increasingly filled with elderly persons who pose little
threat to public safety. A 2013 analysis by the Bureau
of Justice Statistics found that two of every three persons
serving a state prison sentence for a violent crime was
at least 55 years old.19 Our existing research on life
sentences finds that nearly one third of those serving
life sentences are elderly.20
Some people released from prison will recidivate, and
sometimes their crime will include violence. When people
released from prison commit crime--especially violent
crime--there are good reasons to question what went
wrong and who is responsible. For the most part these
questions are not delved into deeply enough and the
system of correction itself is rarely held accountable for
its contribution.

When people released from prison commit crime — especially violent
crime — there are good reasons to question what went wrong and
who is responsible. For the most part these questions are not delved
into deeply enough and the system of correction itself is rarely held
accountable for its contribution.

In many other Western democracies, programming is
the central component of imprisonment, the underlying
philosophy of this approach being that it is the function
of the institution to reform the individual. In the U.S., by
contrast, few policymakers question the logic of simply
increasing lengths of incarceration rather than investing
in programming and training to prepare incarcerated
people to return safely to the community. Most American
officials falsely conclude that recidivism is the result of
not enough punishment and so more is applied. In
contrast, the science on the efficacy of applying additional
punishment as an effective deterrence is straightforward:
more punishment does not lead to less crime.

Racism has consistently implicated policy decisions
about crime and punishment throughout U.S. history.
Indeed, overblown portrayals of violent crime and racist
assumptions about people who commit violent crime
has been and continues to be an easily manipulated
political factor in the build-up of mass incarceration and
the extreme punishment paradigm that supports it.
One need look no further than the story of William (or
“Willie,” as he was renamed by the media) Horton to see
how this has played out.
The infamous national story started with a Massachusettsbased prison furlough21 program that collapsed shortly
after Horton escaped, fled to Maryland, and committed
a series of violent crimes in 1987. Horton became the
focus of the ongoing presidential campaign, which led

to the political downfall of presidential hopeful Michael
Dukakis. Dukakis, then the governor of Massachusetts,
had publicly expressed support for the program, which
had been a standard corrections practice in more than
half the states and the federal government at the time.
Though difficult to fathom in today’s distorted punishment
system, furlough, or work-release, programs allowed
persons serving life sentences for first degree murder
to leave the prison grounds on a regular basis and work
in the community.22 This facilitated hands-on training
that often led to employment opportunities after release.23
The practice of rejoining the community for small
segments of time provided individuals a chance to
transition to their eventual freedom. It also allowed the
preservation of family and peer relationships that are
often critical to success after a conviction, including
lower rates of recidivism.24 After Horton’s crime,
departments of corrections largely shuttered their
furlough programs around the country and they are rarely
used to this day.
Horton’s crimes were indeed tragic but they were an
anomaly in an otherwise successful program which
maintained a voluntary return-from-furlough-rate in the
range of 99% year over year.25 But his 1987 crimes
occurred at a time when crime policy was just becoming
more deeply enmeshed with political jockeying for who
could be the toughest on crime by doubling down on
punishment. The successful defeat of Dukakis solidified
even further both excessive punitiveness as a political
agenda and the use of crime policy as a racist dog whistle
in American politics. The political reaction to Horton’s
crime became a precursor to election campaigns in the

A New Lease on Life 9

coming decades, helping shape the policies of the 1990s
and early 2000s that greatly accelerated mass
incarceration and further entrenched political racism as
a driving force in crime policy.
The exploitation of his crimes focused considerably on
racial dynamics. Horton is Black and his victims were
white. The focus on race in the endorsement of lifelong
confinement cannot be overstated. Today one of every
five Black men in prison is serving a life sentence.26
Bush’s campaign used this incident to seal the public’s
association between Blackness and criminality thus
ensuring that harsher sentences would be favored and
exit-options for the incarcerated would be closed.27
Left out of heated accusations claiming that African
Americans’ possessed a unique proclivity toward violence
was the radically different outcome for nearly everyone
else who participated in the furlough program at the
time. In fact, Horton was one of about 600,000 persons
released that year nationwide, the vast majority of whom
returned voluntarily and without incident.28
Research establishes the racist tendencies driving
reactions to crime and crime policy, especially crimes
of violence. Harvard University race scholar Khalil Gibran
Muhammad observes that violence committed by Black
people evokes a different public reaction than violence
committed by white people.29 Black people are portrayed
as dangerous and violent in comparison to white people,
whose acts of violence are more easily interpreted as
aberrant and situational. This perception allowed the
proliferation of the concept of a youthful superpredator30
to emerge with little controversy at the time, though it
has now been thoroughly debunked. Author David
Sklansky, whose legal scholarship specializes on the
definition of violence and its intersectionality with race,
makes a similar connection.31 He notes that crime
committed by whites is often attributed to situations
associated with the commission of crime whereas
crimes committed by Blacks are attributed to a
fundamental nature within them as dangerous and
As with all stages of the criminal legal system, racebased assumptions about African Americans who
commit crime subjects Blacks to greater scrutiny and
ultimately more punishment than whites.32

10 The Sentencing Project

At 15 years old, Michael Mendoza sat in the
backseat of a car while the front-seat passenger
shot and killed someone in a gang-related
murder. Mendoza was prosecuted in criminal
court as if he was an adult, convicted of second
degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison
with the possibility of parole.
He first went before the parole board in 2010,
where he provided evidence of his personal
growth in prison and his readiness to return
home. He was denied. In 2014, he received his
second chance as a result of California’s Senate
Bill 260, which created a separate, ageappropriate parole review process for youth
sentenced to life imprisonment. Successfully
appearing before this board allowed for his
release in 2014.
A condition of Mendoza’s parole is a lifetime of
supervision by California’s Division of Adult
Parole, an agency within the California
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Such supervision often imposes requirements
that make a successful transition to life in the
community difficult. For instance, Mendoza was
initially required by his parole conditions to stay
within a 50-mile radius of his residence, which
left him unable to visit family. Yet maintaining
family bonds serve as a strong protective factor
against committing crime. The myriad limitations
set by parole restrictions motivated Mendoza
to pursue a career advocating for formerly
incarcerated people.
“Being engaged with these policies just by simply
sharing my own personal experiences of what
it was like to grow up in incarceration as a
Mexican-American kid gave me so much
confidence and experience that I needed to really
succeed in this world,” said Mendoza.

Image: Michael Mendoza speaking at a press conference

Today he is the National Policy Director at the AntiRecidivism Coalition (ARC) in California, where he
is responsible for expanding the organization’s
policy priorities. Mendoza hopes his experiences
will serve as a way to help other formerly incarcerated
people “continue to change the narrative” and give
them the opportunity to “show that we are not excons, we are not felons, we’re not inmates, we’re
people that have a way to give back.” The importance
of the lived experience of imprisonment in earning
trust and support of newly released lifers is critical.
Mendoza’s work is just one of the ways he is
providing others with the same opportunities he’s
been given. He recently adopted a dog and highlights
how the experience has impacted him by being able
to serve as an advocate in a new way.

“[S]he’s teaching me a lot of patience, humility, love
and for me, for someone like myself and the traumas
that I’ve experienced, it’s been really helpful. She’s
amazing. She’s smart, she’s well-behaved. And I
think it’s because she did time, too. She did about
a year in an animal shelter before I found her.”

“We are not ex-cons, we are not
felons, we’re not inmates, we’re
people that have a way to give back.”

A New Lease on Life 11

The Bureau of Justice Statistics is responsible for the
collection and analysis of state corrections data and
the agency’s reports are heavily relied on by scholars,
advocates, and policymakers for understanding national
crime policy and corrections trends.
Researchers at the BJS tracked the arrests of 404,648
people exiting prison in 2005 across 30 states; within
three years, 42% were rearrested and within five years
just over half had been rearrested. Twenty percent of all
individuals released from prison were arrested for a new
violent offense within three years. The majority of these
were for assault, 1% included a homicide, and 2% included
a sexual assault/rape. Among those who had initially
been convicted of a homicide, 2% committed a
subsequent homicide. As depicted in Table 1, these
individuals were less likely to commit any other violent
offense than released persons who were initially
convicted of a nonhomicide.33

Similarly, a 2002 Bureau of Justice study of 272,111
prison releases across 15 states found that persons
exhibited low public safety risk following release after
a homicide conviction.34 Among those released after
serving time for murder, 1% were arrested for another
murder and 17% were arrested for another type of violent
offense. One percent of people released from prison
after serving time for a violent crime were subsequently
arrested for a murder and 28% were arrested for another
violent offense. These rates fall far below new arrests
among those convicted of other crime types.35 Persons
released after a homicide conviction were rearrested at
a considerably lower rate (41%) than released prisoners
generally (68%).
Despite these relatively low rates of recidivism, this is
not the portrayal of murder or other violent crime that
media consumers receive. Instead, the most sensational
murders are characterized as commonplace.

Table 1. Rearrest Rates Among People Released from Prison for Violent Offenses
Initial Crime Conviction

Rearrested For

Violent crime
Violent crime
Violent crime

Violent crime
Any crime
Violent crime
Any crime

Rate of Occurrence After
Five Years


Reproduced from Durose, M., R., Cooper, A. D., & Snyder, H. N. (2014). Recidivism of prisoners released in 30 states in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010.
Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Notes: BJS defines murder as inclusive of murder, voluntary manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter, negligent manslaughter, nonnegligent manslaughter,
unspecified manslaughter, and unspecified homicide. BJS measures recidivism as arrest rather than return to prison on a new conviction. Because arrest
frequently does not lead to conviction and imprisonment, this is likely to be a substantial overestimate of criminal offending. This study captured data from
30 states.

12 The Sentencing Project

John Pace committed attempted robbery in 1985 and
his victim died from related injuries ten days later. At 17
years old, Pace was convicted of second-degree murder,
which requires a mandatory life without parole sentence
in Pennsylvania. A Supreme Court decision in 2016
allowed for Pace to be resentenced and granted parole
a year later.
“Seeing the pain of your loved ones, particularly in my
case, my mother,” Pace said. “Seeing these kinds of
things, I think those were the kinds of things that really
resonated with me and said I want to do something
Maintaining an emotional and physical connection to
family makes a difference. A Canadian study of 86 people
convicted of homicide who subsequently recidivated
identified the loss of community and family support as
a result of their incarceration as the primary explanation
for reoffending.36
Pace was originally denied programming because of his
life sentence; some administrations see it as a waste
of money to provide programming to those who will
never be released. Eventually he participated in the

Left image: John Pace early on in his life sentence.
Right image: John Pace today.

Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program which brings
together incarcerated and traditional university students.
He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree from Villanova
Pace’s participation in the Inside-Out program afforded
him the opportunity to secure a job with the program
upon his release, eliminating the barrier to employment
that many returning citizens face. Pace says he’s blessed
to have the opportunities that he has had upon his
release, but still faces challenges. He is under lifetime
parole supervision with strict guidelines.
“You’d like to think that you’re free, but you’re really not
and I think you’re reminded of that,” Pace said about
Today, Pace works as a reentry coordinator for other
people coming out of prison. “I like to speak to young
people, particularly young people who come from
marginalized communities, that probably don’t think
there’s a way out of this,” said Pace. “Being able to provide
my perspective to them, I think I provide them hope that
there are ways that you don’t have to go through the
same experience I went through in order to get it.”
A New Lease on Life 13

When Louisiana abolished parole in 1971, it foreclosed
any possibility for release for persons convicted of first
or second degree murder, before which time Louisiana
often granted release after approximately ten years.
Louisiana has one of the largest populations of life and
virtual life-sentenced prisoners; one in five people in
Louisiana prisons has a life sentence.37
A number of recent legal challenges have led the way
for a new era of reform to take hold.38 The earned release
of hundreds of people originally sentenced to life with
no chance for parole has allowed researchers to observe
outcomes for these released prisoners.
Louisiana State University researchers tracked arrest,
conviction and reimprisonment of 205 released people
who had been convicted of murder or armed robbery.
Both three and five-year reimprisonment rates were
examined revealing a 5% and 8% reimprisonment rate,
At its peak, Louisiana had the world’s highest per-capita
rate of people sentenced to life without parole for crimes
committed while under 18. Recent legislative reforms
now allow this group parole consideration after serving
25 years. According to news reports from the end of
April 2021, since the Louisiana legislature extended
parole eligibility to this subset, the board has granted
parole to 68 people and not a single one has been
Similar results are evident in Michigan, another state
that relies heavily on parole ineligible life sentences as
a public safety tool but people paroled in this state
between 2007 and 2010 with convictions for seconddegree murder, manslaughter, or a sex offense were
about two-thirds less likely to be reimprisoned for a new
crime within three years as the total paroled population,
according to a 2014 study by researchers at the Citizens
Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending. Over 99% of
these individuals had not been re-imprisoned for a similar
offense within the three-year study period.

14 The Sentencing Project

“Individuals who are released on
parole after serving sentences for
murder consistently have the lowest
recidivism rate of any offenders.”
John Carner
New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services

Slightly higher rates of violent recidivism are evident
from a study in New Jersey of 320 people who were
sentenced for a homicide conviction, imprisoned, and
released between 1990 and 2000. Reoffending data
during a five-year follow up period revealed that 48% of
the sample did not recidivate and another 27% violated
their parole. Of the remaining, 6% committed a property
offense, 7% committed a violent offense, 10% committed
a drug offense and 3% committed a weapons-related
offense. None committed another homicide.40
New York has a population of persons serving life
sentences that is 69% greater than its entire prison
population of 1970 at the start of the mass incarceration
era. Nearly 8,300 people are serving parole-eligible life
sentences in New York, representing one in 5 people in
prison. Characteristics of many states, the majority of
people serving life sentences in New York, 93% have
been convicted of a violent offense, including 71% for
a homicide.
John Carner, former spokesperson for the New York
State Division of Criminal Justice Services, observes:
“Individuals who are released on parole after serving
sentences for murder consistently have the lowest
recidivism rate of any offenders.”41

Figure 1. New York Trends in Lowering Life Imprisonment Amid Declines in Violent Crime

■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■








■ ■

■ ■ ■










3,000 ■ ■ ■






Violent crime rate per 100,000

People Serving Life With Parole










Violent Crime Rate







Life With Parole

Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation (n.d.) Crime Data Explorer; Nellis, A. (2021). No end in sight: America’s enduring reliance on life imprisonment.
The Sentencing Project.

New York has been safely reducing its reliance on life
imprisonment since 2004 and maintained a declining
violent crime rate over the same period of time. Between
2004 and 2020, the state has declined its life-sentenced
population by 5,000 people.
Analysis of New York prison release data by University
of Michigan Law School’s J.J. Prescott, Benjamin Pyle,
and Sonja Starr found that reimprisonment rates among
people previously convicted of murder or nonnegligent
manslaughter in New York were less than half that of
the general population released from prison during the
three years following their release.42 Moreover, homicide
convictions among those who were aged 55 and older,
and released during the study period between 1991 and
2014, were very rarely imprisoned (0.2%) for the same

Repeat offending among persons released from prison
after a murder conviction is rare in New York. “Of 368
convicted murderers granted parole in New York between
1999 and 2003, six [people], or 1.6% percent were
returned to prison within three years for a new felony
conviction--none of them a violent offense.”43 A separate
study of persons released between 1985 and 2012 fewer
than 2% were returned to custody.44

A New Lease on Life 15

“You know, you go in and the guy’s real pessimistic...and
after taking programs and taking groups, you see this
same person and he’s like, ‘I have to change the way I
think. I have to change my mentality,’” said Brevard.
“When people get it and come home, that’s the most
fulfilling thing that can happen in my life and it’s

Jacob Brevard was 19 years old when he arrived in prison
to serve a parole-eligible life sentence for a first degree
murder conviction.
After 25 years behind bars, Brevard was granted release
in 2014. He attributes his personal transformation to his
mother’s death that occurred while he was incarcerated.
In that moment, he says that he made a promise to
himself that he was going to show up differently in life.
He has kept this promise and now uses his experiences
as the Associate Director of Inside Programs with the
Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), where he runs character
development and rehabilitative groups inside California
prisons. Through his work Brevard is able to impact the
lives of incarcerated people

Brevard’s success counters the common narrative that
those who caused harm in the past will always be on
the brink of causing harm again so they must stay in
prison. He encourages his clients in showing their
capacity for change and advocates for offering
meaningful opportunities for second chances.
“If you want people to change and you want public safety
to be paramount, we have to change the way we deal
with people who are incarcerated or previously
incarcerated and give them opportunities to be
successful,” he says.
“I feel like I’m an ambassador for all the people that are
still doing time and that my behavior is a reflection of
them,” said Brevard. “If I come out here and do something
stupid, some of those guys will have to pay the price for

“I feel like I’m an ambassador for all the people that are still doing time
and that my behavior is a reflection of them,” said Brevard. “If I come out
here and do something stupid, some of those guys will have to pay the
price for it.”

16 The Sentencing Project

Examining recidivism trends internationally is challenged
by the fact that the U.S. incarcerates its citizens far
longer than any other comparable nation. Even when
examination is limited to life sentences, the range of
years defined as a life sentence outside the U.S. is
typically 10-15 at the most.45
The U.S. diverges sharply from other democracies in its
perspective on the purpose of imprisonment. While other
nations reject outright the imposition of long term and
life sentences on grounds of human rights violations,
the U.S. continues to rely on them in the erroneous belief
that excessively punitive sentences keep Americans
Some American policymakers, academics, and
corrections leaders have begun to look beyond the United
States--primarily to Western Europe--for guidance on
how to rightly shrink the prison system without
jeopardizing public safety.
Observation of more efficient and effective correctional
systems allows a view of how the U.S. system might
operate if prison sentences were substantially shortened.
A range of international studies shows that life
imprisonment is of little utility given the extremely low
rates of reoffending among people convicted for violent
crimes such as murder.46
A western Australian study examined crime outcomes
of 1,088 individuals originally convicted and imprisoned
for homicide. Arrest data showed that 22% of the
individuals were arrested for another violent crime and
among these, three individuals were subsequently
charged with a new homicide.47
Like the U.S. the Netherlands dramatically increased its
incarceration rate between the early 1970s to the mid1990s.Similarities between the Netherlands’ approach
to punishment and that of the U.S. allows for comparative
study, though the use of life sentences in the U.S. still
far outpaces that of the Netherlands.

1996 and 2004 and released before 2008. Overall,
persons released from periods of imprisonment ranging
from one year to eight years for a homicide were
significantly less likely to reoffend with a violent offense
than a nonviolent one. After three years, 38% of those
originally convicted of homicide were reconvicted for a
nonviolent crime compared with 14% for a violent crime.48
Criminologists Ben Crewe, Susan Hulley and Serena
Wright documented the expansion of time-served among
lifers in England and Wales in their ethnographic account,
noting that the minimum time-served on a life sentence
was 13 years in 2003 but has almost doubled by 2013.
As in the U.S., punitive policy shifts rather than largescale changes in crime, account for these extended
imprisonment times. But an assessment of outcomes
from two distinct periods in England and Wales of 20002001 and 2010-2011 researchers found that of the more
than 6,000 murder convictions, fewer than 0.5% were
committed by persons previously convicted of such an
A second study released in 2013 of crime outcomes
among those released from a life sentence in England
and Wales reported that the overwhelming majority of
prisoners reintegrated to the community without incident:
“‘[O]nly 2.2% of those sentenced to a mandatory life
sentence and 4.8% of those serving other life sentences
reoffended in any way, compared to 46.9% of the overall
prison population.”
The Scandinavian countries are widely regarded as being
on the opposite end of the punishment spectrum as the
U.S. In Sweden, for instance life terms have a maximum
imprisonment of 18 years. Here, government clemency
is used regularly and releases among lifers typically
occur after 14-16 years.50 Though relying on a small
sample size of 26 persons released from a life sentence,
researchers identified only four instances of violent
offending after release.51

Researchers Pieter Baay, Marieke Liem, and Paul
Nieuwbeerta examined new convictions for 621 Dutch
individuals originally imprisoned for a homicide between

A New Lease on Life 17

A common critique when comparing the US imprisonment
rate with other countries is that America suffers from a
higher violent crime rate and this creates a higher need
for imprisonment.52 It is true that the U.S. has a violent
crime rate that is roughly five times that of other similarly
situated countries. It is also true that when it comes to
nonviolent crime, America’s rates are mostly on par with
rates in other countries. That is, when countries of similar
size are compared (e.g., New York and England or Los
Angeles and Sydney, Australia), nonviolent crimes occur
with the same frequency.

One plausible factor contributing to the elevated homicide
rates in the U.S. is the readily availability of firearms.
The possession of a firearm during the commission of
a crime allows for it to become lethal much more easily.53
Government responses to crime elsewhere are also
vastly different from the U.S. approach.54 Though
incarceration is still utilized imprisonment is much
briefer. Prison facilities also aspire to mirror life on the
outside as much as possible to ensure that incarcerated
individuals are prepared to succeed when they re-enter
the community.

Zerious (which means “warrior”) Meadows was released
from his life-without-parole sentence in 2016 after
serving 47 years in Michigan, a sentence he began at
age 16. Today, at age 67, he is cared for by his devoted
family, various members of whom visited him regularly
over his almost half-century in prison for a crime he
claims he never committed.
Meadows considers himself fortunate to have had
regular visits from family, and credits their devotion to
him with his staying on track. When asked what it meant
to him to have frequent visits from family, he shared, “it
was a lot because it kept you out of trouble. I didn’t want
to worry my mother.”
Today, Meadows does not work because of his old age
and instead collects Social Security Insurance (SSI). He
shared his discomfort with going from the control of the
corrections system to the care of his family, expressing
desire to get a chance to be on his own but knowing he
may have missed the chance. He does not leave the

18 The Sentencing Project

house much and struggles with paralyzing depression;
he describes some days as being like a, “a blanket over
Meadows wonders how he ever lived through multiple
decades in prison. Meadows’s story serves as a reminder
that low recidivism rates among released persons after
longtime imprisonment does not imply that life is easy
on release. To the contrary, people exiting years of living
in prison face substantial psychological, social, economic,
employment, and housing challenges in their newfound
freedom in the community. Prison is an artificial
environment with few attributes that pass over to life
on the outside. Most decisions are made for the residents
and autonomy is discouraged. The conditions in many
prisons are deplorable: unsanitary as well as physically
frightening. After Meadows’s release, memories of prison
riots, other men being murdered and raped, and female
corrections officers being physically and otherwise
abused by male officers have resurfaced repeatedly for

Left image: Zerious pictured with his sister as a young teenager.
Right image: Zerious pictured with his granddaughter in 2020.

“I see how veterans come back from war, they be having
flashbacks. That’s what happened to me,” Meadows
said. “I guess when I was in, my body put me in survival
The psychological toll of prison is intense and longlasting. Released lifers share that the reintegration to
life outside prison raises many unforeseen psychological
challenges. Ralph Brazel was released from federal
prison in 2013 after serving more than two decades for
a nonviolent drug offense. He recalled the following, “In
prison I sometimes dreamt I was free but woke up to
the nightmare of my incarceration. For a long time after
my release, I dreamt I was back in prison. Fortunately I
woke up to realize I had been freed.” The mental toll on
people who are released is often tremendous.
The transition for long termers is disorienting; there is
enormous pressure but little support. People enter an
obstacle course of rules and expectations that are

difficult to meet and have high stakes if they fail. Though
some prison administrations provide instructions on
basic daily living skills, like how to use a debit card and
a cell phone, how to write a resume and complete a job
application, or how to obtain official birth records, others
do not.55

“I see how veterans come back from
war, they be having flashbacks.
That’s what happened to me,”
Meadows said. “I guess when I was
in, my body put me in survival mode.”

A New Lease on Life 19

The myopic focus on commission of new crimes as the
sole measurement of success ignores attention to the
overall well-being of the individual leaving prison. As a
result, government programs rarely provide the support
needed to make a successful transition to the community
and rarely address the real challenges individuals face
upon reentry.
Most people who commit homicide are unlikely to do
so again and overall rates of violent offending of any
type is also rare. While it is important to decipher what
prompts individuals to commit new crimes of violence
after release, understanding what motivates them to
lead law-abiding lives and contribute positively to society
is equally important.
Catherine Appleton, longtime scholar on life sentences
worldwide, notes, “lifers who fail on license (i.e., parole/
release) attract a high level of publicity and attention,
whereas day-to-day routine of good practice goes largely
unnoticed.”56 As a result, policies that would benefit the
majority are too often judged on the recidivism of the

“Lifers who fail on license (i.e.,
parole/release) attract a high level
of publicity and attention, whereas
day-to-day routine of good practice
goes largely unnoticed.”
Catherine Appleton

20 The Sentencing Project

In addition to the fact that individuals convicted of
homicide and other violent crimes rarely commit these
crimes again, there is also ample evidence that these
individuals are highly motivated to change negative
behaviors and transform their lives. Indeed, contrary to
the assumption that lifers have “nothing to lose” once
they arrive in prison on a sentence that could last their
natural life, dozens of studies on the lived experience
of life-sentenced individuals find just the opposite. Lifers
are eager to earn their release and are viewed as a
stabilizing force in the prison environment.57 This occurs
in spite of, not because of, the experiences they have in
prison. Prison is, after all, an artificial environment in
which obedience to the institution’s rules rarely translates
into challenges faced on the outside. Individuals learn
to cope in prison but it is very different from the outside
world; the coping skills gained in prison are not easily
adaptable to society and are sometimes even counter
effective.58 Most prison programming in the U.S. is
prioritized for its ability to reduce recidivism as its main
objective rather than as a path to self-improvement, job
training, education, cognitive behavioral improvements,
and so on.59
Critics see in-prison programming focused only on
reducing risk, as well as risk assessments to estimate
risk, as largely disconnected from what we know about
punishment.60 Michael Tonry, longtime scholar on
sentencing, writes, “A number of states are busy at work
trying to include risk predictions in their sentencing
guidelines...There are several problems. First is the
excessive punishment problem: given the extreme
lengths of legally authorized and routinely imposed
prison sentences in the United States, it is highly unlikely
that sentence increases for offenders adjudged to be
high risk will be consonant with proportionality
constraints.” He goes on to note, as have others, the
high probability of “false positives,” or the overestimation

In states like Arizona, people serving life sentences are
pointedly excluded from participating in programming,
but this is anathema in other countries. In Sweden by
contrast, the legislature has explicitly required that lifers
are treated similarly to all prisoners. “Every inmate,
regardless of the length of the individual sentence, is
obliged to take part in some form of occupation, be it
in the form of work, training, or programs ‘related to
crime or misuse or some other structured occupational
Left out of meaningful policy and corrections
conversations in the U.S. is how to best support people
exiting prison after long-term imprisonment. Instead the
reentry process is generic to all people leaving the prison
doors, regardless of the number of years spent there.
For people coming back after decades away, the world
has transformed and relationships with family and
connections on the outside have been strained or ended.
Reentry needs are significant.

At 17 years old, Louis Gibson was sentenced to life in
prison. He spent 25 years behind bars in Louisiana, before
landmark SCOTUS decisions allowed for his release in 2018.

of risk which results in the excessive incarceration of
individuals who would not have offended. This
exacerbates the moral and human rights problems that
already set the U.S. apart from other nations regarding
Another failing of American corrections is its one-sizefits-all approach to re-entry. For instance, the prison
programming applied in the U.S. is rarely tailored to the
conduct that landed an individual in prison. A vast
literature and growing industry now exists to predict
reoffending via so-called “risk assessments.” Response
protocols should be tailored to the individual underlying
causes of crime. Anger management and cognitive
behavioral techniques would be appropriate for some
and development of life skills, substance abuse treatment,
trade development would be more suitable for others.
Certainly, recidivism prospects would depend on whether
the rehabilitation provided was relevant to the underlying

In Alabama, as in many other states, people leaving
prison are given a small amount of “gate money,”
approximately $10 and a bus ticket. Exiting individuals
are provided with the following guidance:
Upon the completion of your sentence, you must
be discharged from the penitentiary. In the event
you do not have suitable free-world clothing
available at the time of your discharge, you will
be furnished clothes. You will also be evaluated
for transportation needs. When you do not have
transportation available, you will be provided
with the least expensive kind of public
transportation back to or nearest to the point of
sentencing, or if paroled, to the point to which
you will have to report for parole supervision.62
Given such insignificant support for a life-changing event
like leaving prison, it is hardly surprising that many
individuals find returning to the community exceedingly
difficult, if not impossible.
For example, finding a place to live after leaving prison
is a common obstacle for people exiting a long prison
sentence. When we spoke with Joyce Granger, a
Pennsylvania lifer released after 35 years in prison, she
said that if it had not been for a nonprofit organization

A New Lease on Life 21

A key function of his organization’s work is to offer
comfortable, decent housing to their clients. Hundley
says: “The houses are not what people would imagine.
We want clients to understand, this is what normal living
is like. They’re nicely decorated, nicely furnished, kept
clean. Because we want when people leave us, and they
go into a situation that, you know, should not feel normal,
we want them to know, like, hey when I was living at a
transition house with the Parole Project and it was much
nicer than this. This is what I want to aspire to for my
living condition.”

Joyce Granger, Pennsylvania lifer released after 35 years in prison

that provided housing she would have been homeless.
Her felony conviction rendered her ineligible for most
housing assistance programs and she had few
connections to the outside world. When we asked Andrew
Hundley, Executive Director of the Louisiana Parole
Project, the most common barrier faced by people leaving
prison after multiple decades of incarceration, he
emphasized the challenges people face in finding a place
to live.

Typical bedroom for exiting incarcerated people housed by Louisiana Parole

22 The Sentencing Project

Stability is a key component of remaining crime-free
after release. Parole regulations are strict, requiring
frequent check-ins and myriad stipulations. Added to
this is the high turnover among parole officers which
disrupts the ability to bond to someone who could
otherwise be a key member of the individual’s support
network. Granger shared with us that she already had
four parole officers since her release in 2018. While they
were helpful to her in some ways, they did not get the
chance to know her. Studies of readjustment among
people released from a life sentence suggest that the
network of support around them is critical. Supervisory
relationships are defined by trust and dignity. “This
depends on a system that recognizes the importance
of enabling life-sentenced prisoners, both inside and
outside prison ‘to take responsibility, to strike out
independently, to look beyond the prison label, and to
recognize their own potential and strengths and human
beings.’”63 In the U.S. these qualities are minimized and
too often go utterly unsupported.

A false dichotomy exists between meeting our universal
need for public safety and offering second chances.
Stereotypes about people who commit violent crime
ignore criminological research, and overlook successful
reentry stories. Instead media coverage and public
discourse are too frequently dominated by the exceptional,
outlier cases where crimes are committed by individuals
who were formerly incarcerated for murder or other
violent acts. In this way, the exception has become the
rule in American crime policy by creating a system that
hurts the majority while guarding against a very small
In this report we have explored the experiences of people
who committed violent harm in their past and been
imprisoned for it. We have examined the quantitative
evidence nationally and internationally that shows the
minimal risk of releasing such persons after a reasonable
period of time. Despite some differences in crime
patterns and imprisonment trends, it is wise to look to
other countries for guidance on how to shrink our prison
populations while maintaining public safety. As we have
shown, in most countries the presumption of release
after a maximum of 15-20 years is standard. In most
studies of recidivism rates of persons convicted of
murder or other violence, recidivism rates are less than
10%, often as low as 1-3%.
Though efforts to shrink the size of our correctional
population are gaining momentum in public discourse,
too frequently reforms do not account for the need to
shorten allowable prison sentences for people convicted
of violent crime. Almost half of those in prison have
been convicted of violent crime, and prison terms have
grown so long that they exceed their anticipated public
safety benefit. The national, state, and international
evidence shows that we can safely release people
convicted of violence far sooner than we do.

Inaccurate and sensationalized reporting impedes a
complete understanding of crime risk. Media portrayals
that present violent crime as commonplace and random
misrepresent reality. Media producers have a
responsibility to deliver accurate crime news. Consumers
have a responsibility to read and watch news with
greater scrutiny.
Add to this is the various definitions of recidivism that
abound in various studies. As a start, definitions for
recidivism should be uniform and studied more rigorously.
Recidivism should also no longer be utilized as the sole
measure of “success.” Factors related to social, physical,
and emotional health, gaining employment, and securing
housing are all factors that should be included.
Providing a “second look” to currently incarcerated people
after no more than 10 years and restricting prison terms
in most cases to a maximum of 20 years would effectively
reduce our prison size and keep the public safe.64
To make this a reality, states should professionalize
and accelerate prison release mechanisms.
Decisionmakers considering whether to grant or deny
prison release rely too heavily on the crime of conviction
as the harbinger of future behavior. Risk of criminal
conduct, even violence, closely tracks with aging into
adulthood, a statistical fact that can be trusted when
adopting sentencing and reentry policies.
Most people can succeed on release but some will
reoffend. Policymakers and the public must accept
some level of risk. We must balance aspirations for a
crime-free society with human rights considerations for
both those who have caused harm and those who have
been victimized by it. Investment in successful reentry
will reap far greater outcomes than creating endless
obstacles that set people up for failure.65

A New Lease on Life 23



Graham v. Florida 130 S. Ct. 2011, 2030 (2010); Miller v.
Alabama 1325 S. Ct. 2455 (2012); Montgomery v. Louisiana
136 S. Ct. 718 (2016).
2. Shihadeh, E. S., Nordyke, K., & Reed, A. (2013). Recidivism
in the state of Louisiana: An analysis of 3- and 5-year recidivism rates among long-serving offenders [Fact sheet].
Louisiana State University.
3. Gaes, G., Luallen, J., Rhodes, W., & Egerton, J. (2016). Classifying prisoner returns: A research note. Justice Research
and Policy, 17(1), 48-70.
4. Sometimes they are, as in California when many technical
violations are indeed arrests for new crimes but it is administratively easier to re-imprison someone for a technical violation than to seek a conviction. See, for instance:
Petersilia, J. (2008). California’s correctional paradox of
excess and deprivation. Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, 37, 207–278.
5. To make matters even more complicated, some states include a new crime as a technical violation until a conviction
is rendered, at which time the reason for reentering prison is switched from technical violation to a new criminal
conviction. And this depends on the administrative record
being changed; there’s no guarantee that this happens consistently.
6. Liem, M. (2013). Homicide offenders recidivism: A review
of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18, 1925; Petersilia, J. (2003). When prisoners come home: Parole and prisoner reentry. Federal Probation, 67(3), 73–74;
Blumstein, A. & Beck, A. J., (2005). Reentry as a transient
state between liberty and recommitment. In J. Travis & C.
Visher (Eds). Prisoner reentry and crime in America (pp.
50-79). Cambridge University Press; Burke, P... & Tonry, M.
(2006). Successful transition and reentry for safer communities: A call to action for parole. Center for Effective Public
Policy; Rhodes, W., Gaes, G., Luallen, J., Kling, R., Rich, T., &
Shively, M. (2014). Following incarceration, most released
offenders never return to prison. Crime & Delinquency,
62(8), 1003–1025.
7. Van Zyl Smit, D., & Appleton, C. (2019). Life imprisonment:
A global human rights analysis (p. 289). Harvard University
8. O’Connell, D., Visher, C., & Liu, L. (2020). Violent offending,
desistance, and recidivism. Marquette Law Review, 103(3),
9. Moore, J., and Eikenberry, J. (2020). Recidivism by conviction offense type and release status among prisoners released in Iowa. Crime and Delinquency 67(3), 344-365.
10. Youngs, D., Ioannou, M., & Eagles, J. (2016). Expressive and
instrumental offending: Reconciling the paradox of specialisation and versatility. International journal of offender therapy and comparative criminology, 60(4), 397–422.;
O’Connell, D., Visher, C., & Liu, L. (2020). Violent offending,
desistance, and recidivism. Marquette Law Review, 103(3),

24 The Sentencing Project

11. Baay, P., Liem, M., & Nieuwbeerta, P. (2012). “Ex-Imprisoned
homicide offenders: Once bitten, twice shy?” The effect of
the length of imprisonment on recidivism for homicide offenders. Homicide Studies, 16(3), 259–279.
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13. Gaes, G., Luallen, J., Rhodes, W., & Egerton, J. (2016). Classifying prisoner returns: A research note. Justice Research
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14. Steiner, B., Makarios, M. D., Travis III, L. F., & Meade, B.
(2011). Examining the effects of community-based sanctions on offender recidivism. Justice Quarterly, 29(2), 229–
15. Alper, M., Durose, M. R., & Markman, J. (2018). 2018 update on prisoner recidivism: A 9-year follow-up period (20052014). Bureau of Justice Statistics.
16. Laub, J., & Sampson, R. (2003). Shared beginnings, divergent lives: Delinquent boys to age 70. Harvard University
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19. Carson, A. E. & Sabol, W. (2013). Aging of the state prison
population, 1993-2013. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
20. Nellis, A. (2021). No end in sight: America’s enduring reliance on life imprisonment. The Sentencing Project.
21. Prison furloughs typically refer to authorized temporary release from prison, either supervised or unsupervised, that
allows incarcerated individuals to gradually readjust to life
on the outside
22. Indeed, through much of the 20th century, executive clemency was so common that LWOP was rarely a natural-life
sentence. See Seeds, C. (in press). Death by prison. Irvine:
University of California Press for a complete and thorough
history of LWOP in the United States.
23. Life without parole, LWOP, did not always dictate a natural life sentence as it does now. For more on the history of
LWOP in the U.S., see Seeds, C. (in press). Death by prison.
Irvine: University of California Press.
24. Bales, W. D., & Mears, D. P. (2008). Inmate social ties and
the transition to society: Does visitation reduce recidivism?
Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 45(3), 287–
321; Laub, J. H., & Sampson, R. J. (2001). Understanding
desistance from crime. Crime and Justice, 28, 1–69; Travis,
J., & Visher, C. A. (2005). Prisoner reentry and crime in America. Cambridge University Press.; Bales, W. D., & Mears, D.
P. (2008). Inmate social ties and the transition to society:
Does visitation reduce recidivism? Journal of Research in
Crime and Delinquency, 45(3), 287–321

25. LeClair, D. P. & Guarino-Gheezi, S. (1991). Does incapacitation guarantee public safety? Lessons from the Massachusetts furlough and release programs. Justice Quarterly,
8(1), 9-36; Tenaglia, R. J., Jr. (1988). 1988 Annual Report of
the Furlough Program. Massachusetts Department of Correction; Tolchin, M. (1988, October 12). Study says 53,000
got prison furloughs in ‘87, and few did harm. The New York
26. Nellis, A. (2021). No end in sight: America’s enduring reliance on life imprisonment. The Sentencing Project.
27. Seeds, C. (in press). Death by prison. Irvine: University of
California Press; Tonry, M. (2014). Legal and ethical issues
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26(3), 167-176.
28. Newell, W. (2013). The legacy of Nixon, Reagan, and Horton: How the tough on crime movement enabled a new regime of race-influenced employment discrimination. Berkeley Journal of African American Law and Policy, 3(8), 15.
29. Muhammad, K. G. (2010). The condemnation of blackness:
Race, crime, and the making of modern urban America. Harvard University Press.
30. Political scientist John Dilulio made the term “superpredator” famous with his characterization of certain youth, primarily Black youth, as,” impulsive, so remorseless, that
he can kill, rape, maim, without giving it a second thought.”
The phenomenon of such a youth has been universally discredited and even Dilulio has since disavowed this characterization.
31. Sklansky, D. A. (2021). A pattern of violence: How the law
classifies crimes and what it means for justice. The Belknap
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32. Huebner, B., & Bynum, T. (2008). The role of race and ethnicity in parole decisions. Criminology, 46(4), 907-938.
33. Durose, M., R., Cooper, A. D., & Snyder, H. N. (2014). Recidivism of prisoners released in 30 states in 2005: Patterns
from 2005 to 2010. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
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35. Langan, P.A., & and Levin, D.J. (1994). Recidivism of prisoners released in 1994. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
36. Cale, J., Plecas, D., Cohen, I. M., & Fortier, S. (2010). An exploratory analysis of factors associated with repeat homicide in Canada. Homicide Studies, 14(2), 159–180.
37. Seeds, C. (in press). Death by prison. Irvine: University of
California Press for a complete and thorough history of
LWOP in the United States.
38. Under the state’s “Act 790” (passed in 1990) persons convicted of violent crimes were excluded from an existing
statutory provision that granted parole review upon serving
20 years and reaching age 45. Beginning January 1, 1997,
this exclusion was removed and replaced with a stipulation that prisoners served 85% of their original sentence.
In 2017, opportunity for release for this segment was expanded through consideration of commutation to a term of
years, a process colloquially called “getting your numbers.”
More than 600 people have undergone the review process.
39. Davis, D., & Van Gundy, S. (2021, April 29). It’s time for Louisiana to end juvenile life without parole. Louisiana Illuminator.
40. Neuilly, M., Zgoba, K. M., Tita, G. E., & Lee, S. S. (2011). Predicting recidivism in homicide offenders using classification tree analysis. Homicide Studies, 15, 2, 154-176.

41. The Crime Report. (2011, January 7). Low recidivism rate
reported for paroled NY murderers.
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violent-crime recidivism. Notre Dame Law Review, 95(4),
43. The Crime Report. (2011, January 7). Low recidivism rate
reported for paroled NY murderers.
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paroled lifers. Laws, 3(4), 798–823.
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a factor in the utility of life imprisonment. Current Issues in
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The recidivism of homicide offenders in Western Australia. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 51(3),
48. Baay, P. E., Liem, M., & Nieuwbeerta, P. (2012). “Ex-Imprisoned homicide offenders: Once bitten, twice shy?” The effect of the length of imprisonment on recidivism for homicide offenders. Homicide Studies, 16(3), 259-279.
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sentences for murder. Hart Publishing.
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more crime than other rich countries. It just has more guns.
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54. Recent developments in the Biden Administration suggest
that violence interventions that do not rely so heavily on
enhanced punishments may be gaining favor.
55. Armstrong, L. (2017, December 26). Zerious Meadows was
sentenced to life without parole at 17. Now he’s struggling
with freedom. The Intercept.
56. Appleton, C. (2010). Life after life imprisonment. Oxford
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57. Cunningham, M. D., & Sorensen, J. R. (2006). Nothing
to lose? A comparative examination of prison misconduct rates among life-without-parole and other long-term
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for abolishing life sentences. The New Press.
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of recidivism. Federal Sentencing Reporter, 26(3), 167–176.
60. Tonry, M. (2014). The legal and ethical issues in the prediction of recidivism. Federal Sentencing Reporter, 26(3),

A New Lease on Life 25

61. Schartmueller, D. (2013). Too dangerous to get out? The
use of individualized release mechanisms for lifetime incarcerated offenders in Sweden. Criminal Justice Policy
Review, 25(4), p. 417.
62. Alabama Department of Corrections. (2017). Male inmate
handbook. Department of Research and Planning.
63. Van Zyl Smit, D., & Appleton, C. (2019). Life imprisonment:
A global human rights analysis (p. 289). Harvard University
64. Ghandnoosh, N. (2021). A second look at injustice. The Sentencing Project; O’Connell, D., Visher, C., & Liu, L. (2020).
Violent offending, desistance, and recidivism. Marquette
Law Review, 103(3), 983–1006, p. 1003.
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consequences for a drug offense conviction. In B. Huebner
& N. Frost (Eds.). Handbook on the consequences of sentencing and punishment decisions. Routledge.

A New Lease on Life
Ashley Nellis, Ph.D. and Breanna Bishop
June 2021


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Washington, D.C. 20036
Tel: 202.628.0871
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26 The Sentencing Project

Related publications by The Sentencing Project:

No End In Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment
A Second Look at Injustice (2021)
The Next Step: Ending Excessive Punishment for Violent Crimes

The Sentencing Project promotes effective and humane responses to crime that
minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults by promoting
racial, ethnic, economic, and gender justice.