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Report

In the Extreme: Women Serving Life Without Parole and Death Sentences in the United States

One of every 15 women in prison — amounting to more than 6,600 women — is serving a life sentence and nearly 2,000 of these have no chance for parole. Another 52 women in the U.S. are awaiting execution.

Related to: Gender Justice, Sentencing Reform, Incarceration

Overview

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.

About the Author

  • Ashley Nellis, Ph.D.

    Senior Research Analyst

    Ashley Nellis, Ph.D. has an academic and professional background in analyzing criminal justice policies and practices, racial disparities, juvenile justice systems, and long-term imprisonment. Her documentation of the prevalence of life imprisonment has served as a national resource for academics, advocates, policymakers, reporters, and incarcerated persons.

    Read more about Ashley

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