Nationwide one of every 15 women in prison — over 6,600 women — are serving a sentence of life with parole, life without parole, or a virtual life sentence of 50 years or more. The nearly 2,000 women serving life-without-parole sentences can expect to die in prison. Death sentences are permitted by 27 states and the federal government, and currently 52 women sit on death row. This report presents new data on the prevalence of both of these extreme sentences imposed on women.
Since 2008, the number of women serving LWOP has grown an alarming 43 percent. Florida, Pennsylvania, California, Michigan, Louisiana, and Mississippi lead the nation in the use of this hopeless sentence. California outpaces all other states in the number of women on death row.
Racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal legal system are tightly linked to disparities in the racial composition of women serving extreme sentences. More than four in ten women on death row are people of color. And, one of every 39 Black women in prison is serving LWOP.
Many women facing extreme sentences experienced trauma and abuse prior to their imprisonment. A majority of the women have endured sexual and/or domestic violence, and the legal system has consistently failed to take their experiences into account. Imprisonment often exacerbates their trauma.
The report is a joint publication of The Sentencing Project, National Black Women’s Justice Institute and the Cornell University Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide who together in 2020 formed the Alice Project. The collaboration seeks to highlight the experiences of incarcerated women and girls, to eliminate extreme sentences, and to reduce the influence of racial and gender bias in the criminal legal system.
How Many People Are Spending Over a Decade in Prison?
In 2019, over half of the people in U.S. prisons – amounting to more than 770,000 people – were serving sentences of 10 years or longer – a huge jump from 2000.