An extreme increase in length of sentencing in American prisons

One in seven people in prison are serving a life sentence, according to a new study from The Sentencing Project

A new report from the Sentencing Project finds that 203,865 people are serving a sentence of life without parole, life with parole or a virtual life sentence of at least 50 years.

  • One in 7 people in prison is serving a life sentence

  • One in 5 Black men in prison today is serving a life sentence

  • Thirty percent of people serving life sentences are 55 or older

“Life sentences are a poor way to achieve public safety because most people mature and change for the better with time, including people who have committed serious crimes,” said Ashley Nellis, the report’s author in a press release. “Keeping people apart from the rest of society for decades beyond what is necessary is both cruel and costly.” 

Over 10,000 people are still serving life for crimes committed when they were under 18-years-old. Another thirty percent of people serving life sentences are 55 or older — even though they face grave health risks behind bars and pose a limited threat to public safety. 

"The mainstream use of life imprisonment in the American justice system deprives people of their dignity, exacerbates already-extreme racial injustice, and perpetuates a system of excessive punishment across the entire sentencing spectrum,” said Executive Director Amy Fettig in a press release. “In order to correct the harms caused by mass incarceration, lawmakers must confront the futility of life imprisonment and end its use.”

  • Life sentences are five times their level in 1984, the first nationwide count of people serving such sentences. 

  • One in 5 Black men in prison today is serving a life sentence. Nationally, two-thirds of people serving life are people of color, with 46 percent Black and 16 percent Latinx. 

  • Between 2008 and 2020, the number of women serving LWOP increased 43 percent (compared to a 29 percent increase among men).

  • People 55 and older account for 12 percent of state prison populations but an even higher concentration of the lifer population (30 percent).

  • 3,972 people serving life sentences have been convicted for a drug-related offense and 38% of them are in the federal prison system.

Read the full report here.



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