Skip navigation

The Sentencing Project, Campaign to End Life Imprisonment - Women and Girls Serving Life Sentences, 2019

Download original document:
Brief thumbnail
This text is machine-read, and may contain errors. Check the original document to verify accuracy.
CAMPAIGN TO END LIFE IMPRISONMENT

WOMEN AND GIRLS SERVING
LIFE SENTENCES
Nationwide one of every 15 women in prison — nearly 7,000 women — is serving a life
or virtual life sentence.1 One-third of them have no chance for parole, so their prospects
for release are highly improbable. The number of women serving life sentences has
grown dramatically despite declining rates of violent crime among women.2

TRENDS IN LIFE SENTENCES FOR WOMEN
Women vs. Men
As is the case with imprisonment generally, men
comprise the overwhelming proportion of people
in prison for life; 97% of lifers are men. At the same
time, the number of women serving life sentences
is rising more quickly than it is for men.3 The
Sentencing Project collected life-imprisonment
figures by gender in 2008 and 2016. We find
that during this nine-year period the number of
women serving life sentences increased by 20%,
compared to a 15% increase for men.

Life Sentences for Women and Violent Crime
The rise in life imprisonment among women has
also been far more rapid than the overall prison
population increase among women for violent
offenses. Between 2008 and 2016 there was a 2%
increase in the number of imprisoned women for
a violent crime, but a 20% increase in the number
of women serving a life sentence. When analysis
is limited to life-without-parole sentences, we
see that the number of women serving these
sentences increased by 41% compared to 29%
for men.

STATES WITH HIGHEST PROPORTION OF
WOMEN IN PRISON SERVING A LIFE SENTENCE
California (1 in 4)
Louisiana (1 in 7)
Georgia (1 in 8)
Massachusetts (1 in 8)
Utah (1 in 8)
Maryland (1 in 9)

JUVENILES
Nearly 300 women were
under the age of 18 at
the time of the crime
that brought about their
life sentence.
Half of these women
are in just three states:
California (80), Georgia,
(23) and Texas (42).

Girls serving life sentences
Georgia

Texas
All other
states

The Sentencing Project • 1705 DeSales Street NW, 8th Floor • Washington, D.C. 20036 • endlifeimprisonment.org

California

1

CAMPAIGN TO END LIFE IMPRISONMENT
WOMEN’S LIFE CIRCUMSTANCES AND LIFE
IMPRISONMENT
The circumstances that lead women to commit violent
crimes are often complicated by a history of sexual
and/or physical trauma. Compared to men, women
serving life sentences report higher levels of psychiatric
disorders, histories of physical and sexual violence, and
previous suicide attempts. Over one third of women
serving life sentences have attempted suicide.4
In a national survey conducted by The Sentencing
Project of people serving life without parole for
offenses committed as youth, we found that prior
to incarceration, 80% of female respondents had
experienced physical abuse, 77% sexual abuse, and
84% witnessed violence at home.
Some research suggests that the crimes leading
to a life sentence for a woman may be in response
to intimate partner victimization.5 One study of 42
survivors of intimate partner abuse convicted of
murder in California found that all but two had received
life sentences: six were sentenced to life without
parole, and the remaining 34 received life sentences
with minimums that ranged from 7-15 years, but at the
time of the study all these women had already served
25 years.6 Additionally, interview data from 99 women
serving life sentences showed that 17% had been
convicted of killing their former or current intimate
partner, though it was unclear if the murder was related
to intimate partner violence.

1.	
2.	
3.	
4.	
5.	
6.	
7.	

Cyntoia Brown was a victim of sex trafficking who killed
a man who solicited her for sex when she was 16 years
old. Brown received a life sentence as a result and was
required to wait at least 51 years before her first parole
hearing.7 Her case earned national attention after
a series of Hollywood celebrities elevated her story
through social media. Public empathy for the trauma
of her life experience and her allegations of selfdefense helped influence Tennessee Governor William
Haslam to grant her a commutation of sentence in
2018. In the absence of high-profile cases such as this,
commutations are exceedingly rare.

CONCLUSION
While women represent only 3% of the prisoners
sentenced to life imprisonment, they are a growing
segment of the lifer population. Reforms advanced to
end the use of life sentences will need to pay attention
to the nuanced life experiences of women serving life
in prison, as these have shaped their behaviors as well
as their prison experiences in different ways than men.

Nellis, A. (2017). Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences. Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project. A virtual life
sentence is defined as a sentence of 50 years or more in prison.
Uniform Crime Report. 10-Year Comparison in Crime Trends 2006-2015. Available online: https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2015/crime-in-theu.s.-2015/tables/table-33
Trend data are available for data regarding sentences of life with parole and life without parole. The Sentencing Project measured “virtual life”
sentences beginning in 2016, so virtual life sentences being served by women in 2016 are excluded from trend data analyses. We define virtual life
as prison sentences that are 50 years or longer.
Leigey, M. & Reed, K. (2010). A Woman’s Life Before Serving Life: Examining the Negative Pre-Incarceration Life Events of Female Life-Sentenced
Inmates. Women and Criminal Justice 20: 302-322.
Ewing, Charles P. (1987). Battered Women Who Kill: Psychological Self-Defense as Legal Justification. Lexington: Lexington Books.
Elizabeth Dermody Leonard, Convicted Survivors: The Imprisonment of Battered Women, Albany, NY: SUNY Press (2002).
Tennessee Statute defined a life sentence with parole as 60 years; 85% of the sentence (51 years) must be served before one’s initial parole hearing.

The Sentencing Project • 1705 DeSales Street NW, 8th Floor • Washington, D.C. 20036 • endlifeimprisonment.org

June 20192

 

 

Prison Phone Justice Campaign
Advertise Here 3rd Ad
The Habeas Citebook Ineffective Counsel Side