Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences
Amid historically low crime rates, a record 206,268 people are serving life or virtual life sentences—one of every seven people in prison.
Related to: Sentencing Reform
The number of people serving life sentences in U.S. prisons is at an all-time high. Nearly 162,000 people are serving a life sentence – one of every nine people in prison. An additional 44,311 individuals are serving “virtual life” sentences of 50 years or more. Incorporating this category of life sentence, the total population serving a life or virtual life sentence reached 206,268 in 2016. This represents 13.9 percent of the prison population, or one of every seven people behind bars. A mix of factors has led to the broad use of life sentences in the United States, placing it in stark contrast to practices in other nations.1
Every state and the federal government allow prison sentences that are so long that death in prison is presumed. This report provides a comprehensive profile of those living in this deep end of the justice system. Our analysis provides current figures on people serving life with parole (LWP) and life without parole (LWOP) as well as a category of long-term prisoner that has not previously been quantified: those serving “virtual” or de facto life sentences. Even though virtual life sentences can extend beyond the typical lifespan, because the sentences are not legally considered life sentences, traditional counts of life-sentenced prisoners have excluded them until now.
- As of 2016, there were 161,957 people serving life sentences, or one of every nine people in prison.
An additional 44,311 individuals are serving “virtual life” sentences, yielding a total population of life and virtual life sentences at 206,268 – or one of every seven people in prison.
- The pool of people serving life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984.The increase in the LWOP population has far outpaced the changes in the LWP population.
- There are 44,311 people serving prison sentences that are 50 years or longer. In Indiana, Louisiana, and Montana, more than 11 percent of the prison population is serving a de facto life sentence.
- Nearly half (48.3%) of life and virtual life-sentenced individuals are African American, equal to one in five black prisoners overall.
- Nearly 12,000 people have been sentenced to life or virtual life for crimes committed as juveniles; of these over 2,300 were sentenced to life without parole.2
- More than 17,000 individuals with an LWP, LWOP, or virtual life sentence have been convicted of nonviolent crimes.
- The United States incarcerates people for life at a rate of 50 per 100,000, roughly equivalent to the entire incarceration rates of the Scandinavian nations of Denmark, Finland, and Sweden.3
Click here to read the full report.
Vinter and Others v. United Kingdom, App nos. 66069/09, 130/10 and 3896/10 (July 9 2013).
Approximately 2,000 of the JLWOP population will receive a parole review or resentencing due to recent Supreme Court rulings in Miller v. Alabama, and Montgomery v. Louisiana.
We are grateful to criminologist Marie Gottschalk for initially drawing this comparison in: Gottschalk, M. (2012). No way out? Life sentences and the politics of penal reform. In C. Ogletree & A. Sarat (Eds.) Life without parole: America’s new death penalty? New York: New York University Press.