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Throwing Away the Key: The Expansion of Life Without Parole Sentences in the United States

September 22, 2010
This article in the Federal Sentencing Reporter examines the growing use of life without parole (LWOP) sentences in the United States.

Among the 1.6 million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons lives a rising population of people who will spend the remainder of their natural lives there because they have received a sentence of life without parole (LWOP). The rising number of LWOP prisoners is the end result of three decades of tough-on-crime policies that have made little impact on crime but have had profound consequences for American society.

Changes in crime policies over the past few decades have been wide ranging and include such features as an increased emphasis on drug enforcement and determinate sentences and, most significantly, a vastly expanded use of imprisonment. Simultaneously, diminishing value has been placed on the principle of rehabilitation that once guided the nation’s correctional philosophy, however flawed it may have been in its implementation.

Foremost among the changes affecting the prison population in recent years are laws and policies regarding the expansion of LWOP sentences. Today 140,610 individuals—one of every eleven individuals in prison— are serving life sentences and just over 29 percent of them (41,095) will never be eligible for parole. The number of individuals serving life without parole sentences increased roughly 22 percent between 2003 and 2008, from 33,633 to 41,095, nearly four times the rate of growth of the parole-eligible life sentenced population.

Even though various types of life sentences have existed for a long time in the United States, they were generally indeterminate, with the possibility of parole to serve as an incentive for self-improvement. Over the past few decades, some notable changes have made life sentences more common. First, legislators have dramatically expanded the types of offenses that result in a parole-ineligible life sentence. Second, policymakers have established a wide range of habitual offender laws that subject a growing proportion of defendants to potential life terms of incarceration with no chance for parole. Finally, prison terms that extend beyond the expected life span (e.g., 90 years) are far more common today than twenty years ago. Combined, these changes help to explain the rise in life sentences among U.S. prisoners.

To read the article, download the PDF below.

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