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No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America

July 2009:

There are more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in prisons or jails throughout the United States. This figure that has been growing steadily since 1972 and represents a 600% increase over this period. The United States has achieved the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of incarceration in the world by enacting three decades of “tough on crime” policies that have made little impact on crime but have had profound consequences for American society.

These policies have been wide-ranging and include such features as an increased emphasis on drug enforcement, determinate sentences, and most significantly, a vastly expanded use of imprisonment. Simultaneously, there has been a diminishing of the value placed on the principle of rehabilitation that originally guided the nation’s correctional philosophy.

Despite the adoption of a variety of alternatives to incarceration and a renewed consideration of expanding parole for certain non-violent, low-level offenses, developments since the 1970s have established a set of policies that extend considerably the length of time that people spend in prison. These include mandatory sentences, “truth in sentencing,” and cutbacks in parole release. These initiatives apply not only to persons convicted of violent offenses, but also mandate long periods of incarceration for persons identified as habitual offenders and those convicted of certain drug offenses.

Foremost among the changes affecting the prison population in recent years are laws and policies regarding the expansion of life sentences. Even though life sentences ave existed for a long time, historically they were generally indeterminate, with the possibility of parole to serve as an incentive for behavioral modifications and improvements. Over the past few decades, legislators have dramatically expanded the types of offenses that result in a life sentence and established a wide range of habitual offender laws that subject a growing proportion of defendants to potential life terms of incarceration. At the same time, the restricting of parole, notably with the increase in life without parole sentences, paired with a steady flow of life sentenced admissions to prison, results in persons serving a life sentence constituting a rapidly expanding proportion of the incarcerated population.

Policy considerations for persons sentenced to life are very different than for persons who have been convicted of lesser offenses. For individuals who have taken lives or who pose a serious threat to public safety, incapacitation as a means of assuring public safety is a legitimate and compelling concern at sentencing. However, the issue of life sentences is far more complex and cannot be regarded as merely strict sentencing for a deserving population of persons convicted of serious offenses. In this report, we assess the dramatic increase in the imposition of life sentences in the context of incapacitation and public safety, fiscal costs, goals of punishment, and the appropriateness of life sentences for juveniles.1 We also report on trends in the life sentenced population since our previous report analyzing 2002/2003 data.2

Life in prison is of great consequence both to the individuals who receive these sentences and to the society that imposes them. The findings in this report demonstrate that the life sentenced population has expanded dramatically in recent decades, along with the explosion of the prison population overall.

While persons serving life sentences include those who present a serious threat to public safety, they also include those for whom the length of sentence is questionable. In particular, life without parole sentences often represent a misuse of limited correctional resources and discount the capacity for personal growth and rehabilitation that comes with the passage of time. This report challenges the supposition that all life sentences are necessary to keep the public safe, compared to a term of fewer years. We conclude with recommendations for changes in law, policy and practice which would, if adopted, address the principal deficiencies in the sentencing of people to life in prison.

Key Findings• 140,610 individuals are serving life sentences, representing one of every 11 people (9.5%) in prison.

• Twenty-nine percent (41,095) of the individuals serving life sentences have no possibility of parole.

• The number of individuals serving life without parole sentences increased by 22% from 33,633 to 41,095 between 2003 and 2008. This is nearly four times the rate of growth of the parole-eligible life sentenced population.

• In five states—Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and New York—at least 1 in 6 people in prison are serving a life sentence.

• The highest proportion of life sentences relative to the prison population is in California, where 20% of the prison population is serving a life sentence, up from 18.1% in 2003. Among these 34,164 life sentences, 10.8% are life without parole.

• Racial and ethnic minorities serve a disproportionate share of life sentences. Two-thirds of people with life sentences (66.4%) are nonwhite, reaching as high as 83.7% of the life sentenced population in the state of New York.

.There are 6,807 juveniles serving life sentences; 1,755, or 25.8%, of whom are serving sentences of life without parole.

.Seventy-seven percent of juveniles sentenced to life are youth of color.

.There are 4,694 women and girls serving life sentences; 28.4% of females sentenced to life do not have the possibility of parole.

For the remainder of this research: by Ashley Nellis and Ryan S. King of the Sentencing Project

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