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Sentencing Project - Still Life, Life Sentences, 2017

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STILL LIFE
America’s Increasing Use
of Life and Long-Term
Sentences

For more information, contact:
The Sentencing Project
1705 DeSales Street NW
8th Floor
Washington, D.C. 20036
(202) 628-0871
sentencingproject.org
twitter.com/sentencingproj
facebook.com/thesentencingproject

This report was written by Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., Senior Research Analyst
at The Sentencing Project. Morgan McLeod, Communications Manager,
designed the publication layout and Casey Anderson, Program
Associate, assisted with graphic design.
The Sentencing Project is a national non-profit organization engaged
in research and advocacy on criminal justice issues. Our work is
supported by many individual donors and contributions from the
following:
Atlantic Philanthropies
Morton K. and Jane Blaustein Foundation
craigslist Charitable Fund
Ford Foundation
Bernard F. and Alva B. Gimbel Foundation
Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund
General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church
JK Irwin Foundation
Open Society Foundations
Overbrook Foundation
Public Welfare Foundation
David Rockefeller Fund
Elizabeth B. and Arthur E. Roswell Foundation
Tikva Grassroots Empowerment Fund of Tides Foundation
Wallace Global Fund
Copyright © 2017 by The Sentencing Project. Reproduction of this
document in full or in part, and in print or electronic format, only by
permission of The Sentencing Project.

2 The Sentencing Project

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction	5
I. Overview	

6

II. Life by the Numbers	

7

III. Crime of Conviction	

12

IV. Gender	

14

V. Race and Ethnicity	

14

VI. Juvenile Status	

16

VII. Discussion	

18

V. Reform Recommendations	

25

VI. Conclusion	

28

A. Divergent Trends in Life Sentences	
B. Drivers of Life Sentences	
C. The Death Penalty as a Reference Point for “Less Punitive” Sentences		

18
20
22

Appendices	29

Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 3

4 The Sentencing Project

INTRODUCTION
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.

1 in 7 people in prison is serving
a life or virtual life sentence

KEY FINDINGS
•	

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

Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 5

OVERVIEW
Calls for reform to the criminal justice system have been made who would qualify reveals that only one quarter of the prisoners
at the state and federal level in recent years and policy changes who are 50 years older could become eligible for parole under
have been adopted in many jurisdictions. The prison population this proposed law.7
overall has stopped its upward climb and in some states,
substantial declines have been documented. Between 2010 and Bills that aim to reduce prison populations but exclude whole
2015, 31 states lowered their prison population and in five states, categories of crimes illustrate the tension policymakers face
the decline was greater than 15 percent.4 New Jersey has led the between responsibly addressing prison overcrowding while
nation with a 35 percent decline in its prison population since appearing “tough on crime” and increasing corrections expenses.
1999. Motivated by overcrowded prisons and tight budgets, It is not “tough” to imprison people long past their proclivity—
policymakers in select states are reconsidering the value of a or even physical ability—to commit crime; to the contrary, it is
harsh criminal justice response to low-level offenses, especially a poor use of resources that could be put toward prevention.
Moreover, reforms that exclude those
drug offenses, and passing legislation
convicted of violent crimes will not
to shorten prison stays. Reforms are
have a sufficient impact on mass
evident at the other end of the
It is not “tough” to imprison
incarceration, as more than half of
punishment spectrum as well, as the
people long past their
those in state prisons have been
death penalty has been increasingly
convicted of such offenses.
proclivity—or even physical
disfavored for its exorbitant cost and
ability—to commit crime;
the possibility of wrongful conviction.
Imprisonment for those who commit
to
the
contrary,
it
is
a
poor
serious crimes can serve to protect
Absent from most mainstream
society as well as apply an appropriate
use of resources that could
criminal justice discussions is the
level of punishment for the offense.
reconsideration of long prison
be put toward prevention.
Indeed, public concerns about serious
5
sentences. Evaluation of the
crime and maintaining public safety
appropriateness of lifelong prison
are
among
the
drivers
of
support
for long prison sentences. Yet
sentences is typically either omitted from policy discussions or
deliberately excluded from reforms. An example lies in an there are diminishing benefits of high levels of incarceration
Oklahoma bill introduced in January 2017 which purports to on public safety. A prominent reason is that the impulse to
ease prison overcrowding through establishing more flexible engage in crime, including violent crime, is highly correlated
8
geriatric release.6 The “Parole of Aging Prisoners Act” would with age, and by one’s early 40s even those identified as the
9
afford the parole board the power to grant parole to a prisoner most chronic “career criminals” have tapered off considerably.
who is at least 50 years old and has served at least 10 years in Lifelong imprisonment with limited or no chance for review
prison or one third of his or her prison term (whichever is only serves a retributive purpose and is often counterproductive
shorter). Eligible prisoners may request to go before the parole for purposes of crime control.
board “on the next available docket.” However, because the bill
excludes 22 separate crimes, including murder, arson, first degree
burglary, aggravated robbery, and any crime that would result
in sex offender registration upon release, people serving life
would not qualify. In fact, analysis of data from the Oklahoma
Department of Corrections concerning the number of people

6 The Sentencing Project

LIFE BY THE NUMBERS
Overall, 206,268 people are serving life or virtual life sentences
and one quarter of them will never have an opportunity for
parole. Looking at all states and the federal system combined,
one in seven prisoners is serving a life or virtual life sentence.
In eight states, the proportion of state prisoners serving one of
these sentences is at least one in five.

Table 1. States with Highest Rate of Life and Virtual
Life Prisoners among State Prisoners
State
Louisiana
Utah

Number of Life
and Virtual Life
Prisoners

Rate of Life and Virtual Life
Sentences (% of Prison
Population)

11,238

1 in 3 (30.8%)

2,004

1 in 3 (31.3%)

California

40,691

1 in 3 (31.3%)

Alabama

6,104

1 in 4 (24.4%)

Massachusetts

2,038

1 in 4 (23.2%)

Nevada

3,237

1 in 4 (23.7%)

Maryland

4,158

1 in 5 (19.3%)

New York

9,889

1 in 5 (18.9%)

As of 2016, the life-sentenced prison population was nearly five
times its size in 1984, the earliest available record of life sentences
nationally. For much of the time that life sentences have been
growing prison populations were also rising, although at a slower
pace overall. Prison populations started to decline for the first
time in four decades in 2010 and had declined by 4.8 percent
by 2015.10
Crime is also at historic lows. Since its peak year in 1991, violent
crime has been steadily dropping, now about half of its level in
1991. The murder rate, which peaked in 1993, is also approximately
half of its level in 1993, with 4.9 murders per 100,000 residents
reported in 2015.11 Between 2014 and 2015 there was a two
percent increase in violent crime, which has caused some

politicians to predict the next major crime wave. However, it is
too soon to tell whether a more serious rise in crime is on the
horizon.
Despite historic crime lows and falling prison figures, the number
of people serving life sentences—life without the possibility of
parole sentences in particular—has continued to rise.
Within the technical category of life sentences are two
classifications: life with the possibility of parole (LWP) and life
without the possibility of parole (LWOP). For LWP sentences,
the first opportunity for parole typically occurs after 25 or more
years in prison and for LWOP, there is no chance for parole.
Virtual life sentences, explained in more detail below, do not
allow parole until an individual has served as much as 50 years
in prison or longer.

Figure 1. Growth of Life Sentences, 1984-2016
250,000
206,268

200,000
157,966

150,000
127,677 132,000

161,957

142,727

100,000
69,845

50,000

0

34,000

1984

1992

2003 2005
LWP + LWOP

2008

2012

2016

Virtual life

Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 7

Figure 2. Comparison of Violent Crime Rate and Life Sentences, 1984-2016
200,000

900

175,000
750

Life sentences

600

125,000

450

100,000
75,000

300

50,000
150

1984
1985
1986
1987
1988
1989
1990
1991
1992
1993
1994
1995
1996
1997
1998
1999
2000
2001
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006
2007
2008
2009
2010
2011
2012
2013
2014
2015
2016

25,000
0

Violent crime rate per 100,000

150,000

Violent crime rate

0

Average annual growth
projections of life sentences

Life sentences

Figure 3. Comparison of Murder Rate and Life Sentences, 1984-2016
200,000

12

175,000

10

Life sentences

8

125,000
100,000

6

75,000

4

Murder Rate per 100,000

150,000

50,000
2

0

1984
1985
1986
1987
1988
1989
1990
1991
1992
1993
1994
1995
1996
1997
1998
1999
2000
2001
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006
2007
2008
2009
2010
2011
2012
2013
2014
2015
2016

25,000

Murder rate

Life sentences

0

Average annual growth
projections of life sentences

Note: Blue bars on Figure 2 and Figure 3 reflect years in which nationwide data were obtained from departments of corrections; striped bars represent an
average annual growth projection between these years. Violent crime rate data were obtained from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime
Report series.

8 The Sentencing Project

LIFE WITH PAROLE
Nearly all states allow or mandate the use of life with parole.12
In these cases, the government maintains the right to keep an
individual in prison for the remainder of his or her life, but
there is the potential for release after a certain number of years.
These sentences accounted for 108,667 prisoners in 2016. Some
states report disproportionately large shares of prisoners serving
indeterminate life sentences, the highest among which are Utah,
California, New York, Nevada, and Alabama. In Utah, for
instance, more than 30 percent of state prisoners are serving
LWP sentences.13

LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE
Life-without-parole-sentences eliminate the possibility of release
from prison except in the rare case of a clemency or commutation
by the executive branch. There are 53,290 people serving LWOP
sentences as of 2016, amounting to one of every 28 prisoners
overall. Like LWP sentences, LWOP sentences have been
administered disproportionately in a handful of states: combined,
Florida (16.7%), Pennsylvania (10.1%), California (9.6%),
Louisiana (9.1%), and the federal system (7.2%) comprise just
over half (52.7%) of the nation’s total LWOP population. In
Delaware, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania more
than 10 percent of the state prison population is serving a life
sentence with no chance for parole.

VIRTUAL LIFE
As previously noted, this report provides the first-ever census
of virtual or de facto life sentences, a third category of life
sentence which refers to a term of imprisonment that a person
is unlikely to survive if carried out in full. Though not considered
under the technical definition of a life sentence, there are good
reasons to include prisoners serving virtual life sentences in this
report’s count. To date, courts have been reluctant to view
extremely lengthy term-of-years sentences as equivalent to life
sentences. The plaintiff from a 2010 case before the 10th Circuit
Court of Appeals argued that a sentence of 750 years was
equivalent to life without parole, which was not allowed under
the statute for the crime he committed. The appellate court
denied the claim, noting that while LWOP was not allowed, one
that was functionally the same was permissible and, in this case,
reasonable.14

the associated consequences. Establishing a cut-off for the
number of years that defines a virtual life sentence is challenging,
as its survivability is a factor both of the number of years one
is sentenced to as well as the age of the individual at sentencing.
Given that the average age of admission to prison for those
convicted of serious crime is in one’s mid-to-late thirties, we
establish that a maximum sentence of at least 50 years before
parole is equivalent to life in prison. Overall, we find there are
44,311 individuals serving such sentences.
States with particularly large segments of the population serving
virtual life sentences are Alaska, Indiana, Louisiana, Montana,
and New Mexico, ranging from 8.5 to 17.4 percent of the state
prison population. Among these states, Alaska, Indiana, and
Montana are particularly noteworthy because of the
disproportionately high number of virtual life sentences in
comparison to LWP and LWOP sentences. Alaska receives
special mention in many discussions about the use of life
sentences across the nation because it is the only state in the
U.S. that does not statutorily allow life sentences. However, one
in 12 prisoners in Alaska has been sentenced to 50 years or
more, comprising 8.5 percent of prisoners overall in the state.
Likewise, Indiana imprisons relatively few people with life
sentences, reflecting less than one percent of all prisoners. At
the same time, there are 3,537 prisoners in the state serving
virtual life, amounting to 13.5 percent of the state’s overall prison
population. Montana, too, imprisons a relatively small number
of people for LWP or LWOP, but nearly four times as many
prisoners are serving de facto life sentences.

Long-term imprisonment that is
not statutorily defined as a life
sentence should be of concern to
policymakers, advocates, courts,
and prison administrations, all of
whom have an interest in knowing
the true prevalence of long-term
imprisonment and the associated
consequences.

Long-term imprisonment that is not statutorily defined as a life
sentence should be of concern to policymakers, advocates,
courts, and prison administrations, all of whom have an interest
in knowing the true prevalence of long-term imprisonment and
Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 9

Table 2. State Totals: Life with Parole, Life without Parole, and Virtual Life Sentences, 2016
State

LWP

LWOP

Virtual Life

Total

Prison Population

% of Prison Population

Alabama

3,895

1,559

650

6,104

25,037

24.4%
8.5%

Alaska

0

0

400

400

4,701

1,181

504

624

2,309

42,685

5.4%

Arkansas

778

637

1,006

2,421

17,262

14.0%

California

34,607

5,090

994

40,691

129,805

31.3%

Colorado

2,131

667

785

3,583

20,246

17.7%

55

73

612

740

15,831

4.7%

Arizona

Connecticut
Delaware

128

435

228

791

3,942

20.1%

Florida

4,086

8,919

1,161

14,166

99,938

14.2%

Georgia

7,533

1,243

601

9,377

53,169

17.6%

Hawaii

294

55

11

360

3,769

9.6%

Idaho

504

126

19

649

7,353

8.8%

Illinois
Indiana

5

1,609

3,478

5,092

46,240

11.0%

107

123

3,537

3,767

26,759

14.1%

43

670

456

1,169

8,310

14.1%
14.2%

Iowa
Kansas

1,188

28

161

1,377

9,712

Kentucky

804

111

594

1,509

22,425

6.7%

Louisiana

20

4,875

6,343

11,238

36,463

30.8%

Maine
Maryland
Massachusetts
Michigan

0

64

72

136

2,243

6.1%

2,803

338

1,017

4,158

21,442

19.4%

959

1,018

61

2,038

8,795

23.2%
13.5%

1,317

3,804

590

5,711

42,406

Minnesota

461

130

6

597

10,105

5.9%

Mississippi

595

1,470

348

2,413

18,751

12.9%

Missouri

1,767

1,144

525

3,436

32,399

10.6%

Montana

30

47

293

370

2,548

14.5%

Nebraska

96

265

408

769

5,364

14.3%

2,329

569

339

3,237

13,662

23.7%

157

83

26

266

2,867

9.3%

1,127

77

876

2,080

20,135

10.3%

Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico

442

1

608

1,051

7,194

14.6%

New York

9,260

275

354

9,889

52,344

18.9%

North Carolina

1,858

1,387

887

4,132

36,677

11.3%

40

30

10

80

1,795

4.5%

Ohio

5,955

560

170

6,685

50,443

13.3%

Oklahoma

2,021

887

682

3,590

28,946

12.4%

434

118

185

737

14,601

5.0%

44

5,398

2,358

7,800

49,914

15.6%

North Dakota

Oregon
Pennsylvania
Rhode Island

216

31

27

274

2,667

10.3%

1,094

1,117

329

2,540

21,597

11.8%

0

174

197

371

3,505

10.6%

Tennessee

1,910

336

1,317

3,563

20,115

17.7%

Texas

8,320

798

8,637

17,755

148,521

12.0%

Utah

1,940

64

0

2,004

6,405

31.3%
8.0%

South Carolina
South Dakota

Vermont

107

14

Not reported

121

1,508

Virginia

1,239

1,338

Not reported

2,577

38,701

6.7%

Washington

2,052

622

279

2,953

17,211

17.2%

West Virginia

362

286

100

748

7,019

10.7%

Wisconsin

970

225

218

1,413

22,557

6.3%

Wyoming

154

35

122

311

2,440

12.7%

Federal
Total

1,249

3,861

1,610

6,720

191,476

3.5%

108,667

53,290

44,311

206,268

1,480,000

13.9%

10 The Sentencing Project

Figure 4. Life-Sentenced Prisoners as Percent of All Prisoners, 2016
0%
California
Utah
Louisiana
Alabama
Nevada
Massachusetts
Delaware
Maryland
New York
Tennessee
Colorado
Georgia
Washington
Pennsylvania
New Mexico
Montana
Nebraska
Kansas
Florida
Indiana
Iowa
Arkansas
Michigan
Ohio
Mississippi
Wyoming
Oklahoma
Texas
South Carolina
North Carolina
Illinois
West Virginia
Missouri
South Dakota
New Jersey
Rhode Island
Hawaii
New Hampshire
Idaho
Alaska
Vermont
Kentucky
Virginia
Wisconsin
Maine
Minnesota
Arizona
Oregon
Connecticut
North Dakota
Federal

5%

10%

15%

20%

25%

30%

35%

Life with parole
Life without parole
Virtual

Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 11

CRIME OF CONVICTION
For each group of life-sentenced prisoners, states supplied data
on crime of conviction, race, ethnicity, gender, and juvenile/
adult status at the time of the offense. The following sections
present the findings for each of the three life-sentenced prisoner
categories.
Thirty-eight percent of people serving life or virtual life sentences
have been convicted of first degree murder and an additional
20.5 percent have been convicted of second degree, third degree
or some other type of murder. Approximately one third of
people serving life or virtual life sentences have been convicted
of other violent crimes that include rape, sexual assault, robbery,
aggravated assault, or kidnapping. One in 12, or 17,120 prisoners
serving life or virtual life, has been convicted of a nonviolent
crime. Certain jurisdictions stand out with particularly large
segments of their population serving life sentences for nonviolent
crimes. In Nevada and Delaware nearly one-third (32.8% and
31.9% respectively) were convicted of a nonviolent crime. In
Oklahoma, one in six people serving life or de facto life has
been convicted of a nonviolent crime; in Alabama, it is one in
seven and in New York one in nine.

Table 3. Crime of Conviction for LWOP, LWP, and
Virtual Life-Sentenced Prisoners, 2016
Offense

LWOP

LWP

Virtual

LWOP,
LWP,
Virtual

Percent

60.3

33.7

24.4

77,568

38.3%

Second
Degree
Murder

9.7

19.5

11.6

30,945

15.3%

Other Death

5.8

4.9

5.3

10,550

5.2%

Sexual Assault/
Rape

7.2

18.6

23.9

34,450

17.0%

Aggravated
Asslt/Robbery/
Kidnaping

10.5

16.2

20.1

31,658

15.6%

Drug Offense

4.6

1.4

3.5

5,308

2.6%

Property
Offense

0.7

2.8

3.0

4,732

2.3%

Other

0.9

2.8

8.2

7,080

3.5%

Total

100.0

100.0

100.0

202,291

100.0

First Degree
Murder

The crime of conviction for 3,977 life or virtual life sentenced prisoners
was not provided.

12 The Sentencing Project

58.8%

Conviction for second degree murder can result from a range
of levels of involvement in the crime. Pennsylvania’s statute,
for instance, reads: “a criminal homicide constitutes murder of
the second degree when it is committed while defendant was
engaged as a principal or an accomplice in the perpetration of
a felony.”15 A murder conviction other than for first degree
murder may occur when an individual was present during a
felony that resulted in death but played an auxiliary role. A
scenario where two individuals commit a drugstore robbery but
one serves as a getaway driver—even when never entering the
store—can result in a felony murder conviction if someone is
killed during the robbery. Variously referred to as felony murder,
law of parties, or joint venture, these cases typically involve
identical punishments for all those engaged in a felony that
results in a homicide even though only one person in the group
committed the actual homicide. Felony murder doctrines, those
which regard unintended killings during certain felonies as
identical to intended killings, exist in nearly every jurisdiction.16
In some states, the death penalty can be sought in these cases
as well.17

In Pennsylvania, 23 percent of the LWOP population was
convicted of second degree murder. Before his release
through commutation in 2016, Thurmond Berry was one
of these prisoners. At the age of 29, Berry engaged in a
robbery in which his accomplice killed a bystander. Because
state statute requires life without parole for first and second
degree murder convictions, Berry, a first-time offender, was
sentenced to LWOP. Berry’s case gained the attention of a
group of law students who worked for his release. Their
advocacy led to the commutation of his sentence by
Governor Tom Wolf in 2016. Berry was 68 years old when
he was released and had been in prison for nearly 40 years.18

Figure 5. Crime of Conviction among Federal Prisoners Serving LWP, LWOP, and Virtual Life Sentences, 2016
80%
70%
60%
50%
40%
30%
20%
10%
0%
Murder/
Manslaughter

Rape/
Sexual Asslt

Agg Asslt/Robbery/
Kidnapping
LWP

CRIME OF CONVICTION AMONG FEDERAL
LIFE-SENTENCED PRISONERS
The composition of crimes leading to a life sentence in the
federal prison system is quite different from the composition
at the state level. Unlike state imprisonment trends, where 15.7
percent of individuals in prison overall have been convicted of
a drug offense, half (49.5%) of federal prisoners have been
convicted of a drug offense.19 More than two-thirds of federal
prisoners serving life or virtual life sentences have been convicted
of nonviolent crimes,20 including 30 percent for a drug crime.
Among those serving LWOP sentences almost half 49.1% have
been convicted of a drug crime, and 103 are serving virtual life
for a drug crime (6.4%). Individuals convicted of drug offenses
and sentenced to life or virtual life at the state level comprise
only two percent of these sentences overall.
Addressing life sentences for nonviolent drug cases was part of
a bipartisan federal criminal justice reform package introduced
in 2015 and believed by many reform advocates to have the
political support needed to become law. Though the bill ultimately
did not pass during the 114th Congressional session, it is
noteworthy that reconsideration of lifelong sentences was
included at all. In part to compensate for the lack of advancement
of criminal justice reform in the Congress and to acknowledge

Drug Offense

LWOP

Property Offense

Other

Virtual

the disproportionality of life sentences for nonviolent drug
offenses, President Obama granted commutations to 1,715
people in the federal prison system, one-third of who were
serving mandatory life sentences with no option for parole.21
Two-thirds of people in federal prison serving terms of 50 years
or more have a controlling offense that was classified as “other”
by the Bureau of Prisons. Further examination of these prisoners
revealed that 55 percent of those in this group had been convicted
under 18 USC 924(c), a mandatory minimum term of
imprisonment associated with having a weapon.22 The
categorization of this crime as the controlling offense means
that violation of USC 18 924(c) was the most serious offense.
Another 18.5 percent of crimes identified as “other” related to
child sexual exploitation and the transfer of pornographic images
of children.

More than two-thirds of federal
prisoners serving life or virtual
sentences have been convicted
of nonviolent crimes, including
30% for a drug crime.

Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 13

GENDER
Nationwide, 6,781 women are serving life or virtual life sentences.
This figure represents 3.5 percent of the overall life-sentenced
population which is half their representation in the general
prison population (7%).23 All states report one or more women
serving a life sentence, but two states—California and Texas—
represent a considerable proportion of the national count: 19.8
percent of the country’s female lifers are in California and
another 9.9 percent are in Texas.
Renae Green is a Missouri prisoner who is serving
indeterminate life plus 30 years for a 1989 robbery in which
she held up two pharmacists while in the throes of her drug
addiction. Green had endured a troubled childhood marked
by abuse and neglect and she became addicted to drugs at
an early age. Since her imprisonment, she has taken
responsibility for her crime, maintained steady employment
while in prison, fostered friendships with mentors, and secured
housing if released. As it stands, however, Green’s first parole
hearing will not occur until 2029; she will be 74 years old.

Abuse is frequently part of the history of women who end up
in prison. Research conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice
has reported that between 23 and 37 percent of female state
prisoners were physically abused before age 18 and one in four
was sexually abused. These figures are considerably higher than
reported rates of abuse among all women. This study also found
that nearly half of women in state prisons had experienced
abuse at some time before their arrest and that the victims of
most women convicted of murder were their intimate partner
or a family member.24 Research finds that abuse histories are
especially common for women serving life sentences compared
to their male counterparts.25 Our own work in this area found
that while almost half of LWOP prisoners sentenced as children
had suffered physical abuse (46.9%) and one in 5 suffered sexual
abuse (20.5%), the prevalence was much higher among girls,
79.5% and 77.3% respectively.26

RACE AND ETHNICITY
Racial and ethnic disparities are a persistent feature of prisons.
At the state level, African Americans are incarcerated at five
times the rate of whites, and in some states the disparity reaches
10-to-1 or higher. Even in the states with the lowest reported
racial disparity, African Americans are incarcerated at more than
twice the rate of whites.27
Like prison populations in general, the life and virtual lifesentenced population is disproportionately composed of people
of color, representing two-thirds (67.5%) of this group nationally
as of 2016. Nearly half (48.3%) of life and virtual life-sentenced
prisoners are African American, and in Alabama, Georgia,
Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, and South Carolina
two thirds or more are African American. Overall, 15.7 percent
are Hispanic, with the highest percentages in New Mexico,
California, Texas, and New York. Table 4 presents the racial and
ethnic composition of lifers in each state and the federal system.
14 The Sentencing Project

In many states, the racial and ethnic overrepresentation is most
pronounced among people serving LWOP sentences when
compared to the representation for LWP and virtual life
sentences. African Americans make up two-thirds or more of
the LWOP population in nine states: Alabama (68.8%), Illinois
(66.9%), Georgia (75.1%), Louisiana (73.5%), Maryland (66%),
Michigan (68.4%), Mississippi (70.4%), New Jersey (66.2%),
and South Carolina (68.5%).
Finally, people of color comprise 65.6 percent of those serving
de facto life sentences. African Americans comprise just over
half of the virtual life-sentenced population (51.9%) and another
11.7 percent are Latino.28 States with the greatest share of de
facto life sentences being served by African Americans are
Alabama (64%), Illinois (68.5%), Maryland (78.1%), Mississippi
(75.6%), and South Carolina (68.4%).

Table 4. Racial and Ethnic Composition of People Serving Life and Virtual Life Sentences, 2016
State

Number of LWP, LWOP, and Virtual

Percent Black

Percent White

Percent Hispanic

6,104

66.4%

33.3%

0.0%

0.2%

400

12.8%

49.5%

2.5%

35.3%

2,309

19.4%

43.8%

30.9%

5.8%

Arkansas

2,421

51.5%

40.2%

1.7%

6.6%

California

40,691

33.3%

20.8%

37.2%

8.6%

Colorado

3,583

22.1%

47.8%

26.4%

3.7%

Connecticut

740

53.6%

26.9%

19.3%

0.1%

Delaware

791

62.5%

34.0%

3.0%

0.5%

Florida

14,166

53.5%

35.3%

10.7%

0.5%

Georgia

Alabama
Alaska
Arizona

Percent Other

9,377

70.9%

25.5%

3.1%

0.5%

Hawaii

360

5.3%

22.5%

3.9%

68.3%

Idaho

649

2.6%

76.1%

14.9%

6.3%

Illinois

5,092

68.0%

20.3%

11.3%

0.5%

Indiana

3,767

48.6%

47.0%

3.5%

1.0%

Iowa

1,169

25.3%

64.3%

7.8%

2.6%

Kansas

1,377

39.8%

47.8%

9.4%

3.1%

Kentucky

1,509

29.2%

67.9%

0.7%

2.2%

Louisiana

11,238

74.1%

25.2%

0.2%

0.5%

Maine

136

5.9%

86.8%

3.7%

3.7%

Maryland

4,158

75.6%

18.8%

2.1%

3.5%

Massachusetts

2,038

32.8%

43.6%

19.5%

4.2%

Michigan

5,711

65.8%

33.3%

0.0%

1.0%

Minnesota

597

37.2%

48.4%

4.2%

10.2%

Mississippi

2,413

72.4%

26.8%

0.5%

0.2%

Missouri

3,436

51.2%

46.1%

1.7%

1.0%

Montana

370

2.4%

81.6%

0.0%

15.9%

Nebraska

769

34.5%

48.9%

11.6%

5.1%

3,237

26.8%

48.0%

19.8%

5.4%

266

4.5%

86.5%

5.6%

3.4%

New Jersey

2,080

62.1%

24.2%

12.8%

0.9%

New Mexico

1,051

10.8%

35.1%

46.8%

7.2%

New York

9,889

55.8%

17.3%

24.7%

2.2%

North Carolina

4,132

59.6%

35.1%

2.1%

3.3%

80

8.8%

72.5%

5.0%

13.8%

Ohio

6,685

51.7%

44.5%

2.5%

1.3%

Oklahoma

3,590

34.0%

51.4%

5.3%

9.3%

737

11.0%

75.2%

8.7%

5.2%

7,800

62.9%

27.1%

8.9%

1.0%
2.9%

Nevada
New Hampshire

North Dakota

Oregon
Pennsylvania
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee

274

33.9%

41.6%

21.5%

2,540

66.3%

32.4%

0.7%

0.6%

371

5.7%

67.7%

3.5%

23.2%
0.5%

3,563

54.0%

43.8%

1.7%

Texas

17,755

40.4%

32.7%

26.1%

0.7%

Utah

2,004

6.6%

63.1%

16.3%

14.0%

Vermont

121

8.3%

86.8%

3.3%

1.7%

Virginia

2,577

62.2%

36.6%

0.7%

0.5%

Washington

2,953

17.2%

69.5%

12.8%

0.5%

748

14.3%

84.1%

0.5%

1.1%

1,413

46.4%

41.2%

9.6%

2.8%
8.7%

West Virginia
Wisconsin
Wyoming
Federal
Total

311

5.5%

73.3%

12.5%

6,720

58.9%

20.6%

16.7%

3.8%

206,268

48.3%

32.4%

15.7%

3.5%

Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 15

JUVENILE STATUS
Juveniles are serving life or de facto life sentences in every state
except Maine and West Virginia.29 Across the country, 11,745
individuals are serving a life or virtual life sentence for crimes
committed before age 18, representing 5.7 percent of the total
life-sentenced population. One in every 17 life–sentenced
prisoners was a juvenile at the time of his or her crime. In select
states, the proportion of such individuals is remarkable: in
Wisconsin, for example, one of every nine (11.1%) of those
serving LWOP, LWP, or a de facto life sentence was under 18
at the time of the crime.

In 2012, the Court extended this line of thinking in Miller v.
Alabama31 to juveniles who had been convicted of homicide
offenses and mandatorily sentenced to LWOP because of a
statutory requirement associated with the crime of conviction.
In the majority opinion, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that
mandatory life sentences preclude the consideration of mitigating
age-related factors. The so-called “Miller factors” were described
in the following excerpt from the opinion:

The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed the constitutionality of
life-in-prison sentences for juveniles in three separate rulings
since 2010. In 2010, the Court in Graham v. Florida ruled that
LWOP sentences for nonhomicide convictions committed by
juveniles violate the 8th Amendment clause regarding cruel and
unusual punishment. In his opinion Justice Anthony Kennedy
wrote that juveniles must be provided with a “meaningful
opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and
rehabilitation.”30

Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes
consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark
features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and
failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents
taking into account the family and home environment
that surrounds him—and from which he cannot usually
extricate himself—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.
It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense,
including the extent of his participation in the conduct
and the way familial and peer pressures may have
affected him. Indeed, it ignores that he might have been
charged and convicted of a lesser offense if not for
incompetencies associated with youth.

Figure 6. States with more than 500 LWP, LWOP, and Virtual Life-Sentenced Juveniles, 2016
3,500
3,025

3,000
2,500
2,000
1,500
982

1,000
500
0

509

Michigan

577

582

640

669

Florida

Pennsylvania

New York

Georgia

16 The Sentencing Project

Louisiana

1,116

Texas

Calfornia

Miller was made retroactive in 2013 through the ruling in
Montgomery v. Louisiana. Since that time, sentences are slowly
being converted to lesser terms and some individuals are being
released from prison altogether.

There are more than 7,000
parole-eligible life-sentenced
prisoners whose crimes
occurred before age 18.

In Nebraska Luigi Grayer is a beneficiary of the High Court’s
rulings. At age 15 Grayer committed a homicide—the result
of a botched purse-snatching—and was sentenced to life in
prison with no opportunity for parole. At 60 years old, he
had served 45 years in prison, had suffered a stroke while
incarcerated, and was confined to a wheelchair.32 He was
finally granted a new sentence in the aftermath of the Miller
ruling that allowed his release in December 2015.

Amelia Bird, now 27 years old, is serving two life-with-parole
sentences to be served consecutively for a second-degree
murder in which she was an accomplice. At age 17, she
confided in her boyfriend that she had been physically and
sexually abused by her brother and father. While she slept
one night, her boyfriend broke into the home and shot both
of Bird’s parents, killing her mother and wounding her
father. Bird agreed to a plea from prosecutors to avoid the
threat of a death sentence; she was then sentenced to two
consecutive indeterminate life sentences. Under current
policy, she will not become eligible for parole until at least
age 60. Bird represents the thousands of individuals who
do not stand to benefit from any of the recent Supreme
Court rulings because they were not sentenced to LWOP.

California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania have
the greatest total number of JLWOP prisoners; combined these
states account for 73.9 percent of the nation’s JLWOP population.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia now ban life
without parole sentences for juveniles. In some states the reforms
have been retroactive so that prisoners currently serving will
benefit. In March 2017Arkansas became the latest state to do
so, voting to replace mandatory JLWOP with the opportunity
for parole occurring after 20 to 30 years in response to the Miller
and Montgomery decisions. This state reform is notable because
Arkansas has a relatively large number of individuals serving
juvenile LWOP sentences, and 8.6 percent of all Arkansas’s
LWOP prisoners were juveniles at the time of the crime. Senate
Bill 294 was passed as retroactive, so all 55 individuals serving
the sentence stand to have an opportunity for release.

JUVENILES SERVING LIFE WITH PAROLE AND
VIRTUAL LIFE SENTENCES
Aside from the 2,310 individuals who are the subject of recent
court rulings, departments of corrections report an additional
7,346 parole-eligible life-sentenced prisoners whose crimes occurred
before age 18. This population represents 6.8 percent of all
reducible life-sentences nationwide. Indeterminate life sentences
for juveniles are most heavily concentrated in California, Texas,
New York, and Georgia. Together these states account for 63
percent of the total population of those serving LWP for crimes
committed as juveniles. California alone accounts for 37 percent
of the total number of juveniles serving life with parole in the
U.S. with 2,717 people serving this sentence who were convicted
of crimes from their youth. In some states, such as New York,
children as young as 13 years old can be sentenced to mandatory
terms of life with parole.33

Apart from the 9,656 individuals serving LWP and LWOP for
crimes committed as juveniles, an additional 2,089 young people
have been sentenced to terms of 50 years or more in prison, or
virtual life. Like trends observed in the overall life-sentenced
population, life- and virtual-life sentenced youth are
overwhelmingly male (98%) and the majority are people of color
(80.4%) with 55.1 percent being African American.
When compared to the representation of adults serving LWOP,
LWP, and virtual life, we see that youth of color comprise a
considerably greater share of the total than their adult counterparts
for each of the three types of life sentences. Table 5 provides
a comparison by race and ethnicity between juvenile and adult
status for each category of life sentence.

Table 5. Comparison of Juveniles to Adults By Race
and Ethnicity
Percent Black

 

Percent Nonwhite

 

LWP

LWOP

Virtual

LWP

LWOP

Virtual

Juvenile

49.9%

63.4%

64.4%

81.9%

76.8%

79.1%

Adult

42.8%

55.2%

51.3%

66.8%

68.4%

65.0%

Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 17

One of every 21 virtual life-sentenced individuals was convicted
of a crime committed as a juvenile. States with the highest
concentrations of virtual lifers who were juveniles at the time
of the crime include Washington (9.7%), Louisiana (9.5%),
Kentucky (8.8%), and Florida (8.3%).
In Louisiana, a remarkable 600 young people have been sentenced
to terms of at least 50 years before release. Around the U.S.
nearly two-thirds (64.4%) of young people with virtual life
sentences are African American; in Alabama, all but one of the
10 juvenile virtual lifers is African American; in Wisconsin 10
of the 12 juveniles sentenced to terms of 50 years or more are
African American; and in South Carolina, 21 of the 22 virtual
life prisoners who were juveniles are African American.
Texas, which has relatively few JLWOP prisoners,34 nevertheless
currently holds 449 prisoners with sentences of at least 50 years
for crimes committed in their youth. More than one quarter of
Texas prisoners serving virtual life for a crime in their teenage
years had been convicted of aggravated assault as their primary
offense.35 Here, too, the sentence has disproportionately fallen
on youth of color, where 80 percent are either African American
or Latino.

18 The Sentencing Project

DISCUSSION
More than 200,000 people were serving life or virtual life prison
sentences as of 2016, amounting to 13.9 percent of the total
prison population. The majority are male (96.7%), most are
people of color (67.6%), and nearly all (91.5%) have been
convicted of a violent offense.
Some striking features of this population include the more than
17,000 individuals who have been convicted of a nonviolent
crime, the 12,000 people who were convicted as juveniles, and
the overrepresentation of African Americans, particularly among
those convicted in their teens. It is also notable that in recent
years there has been a divergence between life with- and lifewithout parole sentences.

DIVERGENT TRENDS IN LIFE SENTENCES
This report has described the composition of the life and virtual
life-sentenced population in America’s prisons as of 2016. It is
helpful to place this analysis in the perspective of previous years’
data to see how and where trends have changed over time. The
Sentencing Project has collected data regarding the prevalence
of life sentences on four occasions since 2003. This data was
first published in our 2004 report, The Meaning of ‘Life’: Long
Prison Sentences in Context. In 2008 we again asked the states and
federal government to provide data on life sentences and reported
the findings in our 2009 report, No Exit: The Expanding Use of
Life Sentences in America. In 2012, we expanded our survey of the
states and federal government to include, along with standard
LWP and LWOP figures for 2012, a request for annual census
data of LWP and LWOP prisoners going back to 1980. These
findings were released in our 2013 report, Life Goes On: The
Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America. In this section, we consider
notable long-term trends in the use of life sentences that emerge
from a multi-year review.

Long-Term Trends: 2003-2016
As noted in this report, U.S. prisons have steadily increased their
life-sentenced population from a starting point of 127,677 in

2003 to 161,957 in 2016. The rise in LWOP has grown nearly
four times as quickly as the rise in indeterminate life sentences,
reflecting a 17.8 percent increase in parole-eligible life sentences
compared to a 59 percent increase in LWOP between 2003 and
2016 (Figure 7). Though the pace of growth in life sentences
has slowed somewhat over these years, the population of people
serving life sentences has continued to rise.

Figure 7. Increase in Life with Parole and Life
Without Parole Sentences, 2003-2016
59.0%

60%
50%
40%
30%
20%

17.8%

10%
0%

Life with parole

Life without parole

Not all states are equally responsible for the rise, though all
states grew their life-sentenced population to some extent. A
look at states with considerable increases in life sentences shows
that, regarding LWP, Colorado increased its parole-eligible life
sentences from 943 to 2,131—a 126 percent rise—between
2003 and 2016. In Washington, life-with-parole sentences nearly
quadrupled from a reported 529 in 2003 to 2,052 in 2016.
Regarding LWOP, Wyoming increased its number of sentenced
prisoners from 4 to 35 over this period, reflecting a 775 percent
increase. In Ohio, the number of people serving LWOP increased
from 105 to 560.

Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 19

Recent Trends: 2012-2016
Looking only at the most recent period of growth, we see that
nearly 3,000 more individuals are serving life sentences nationwide
in 2016 compared to 2012, reflecting a 2.5 percent increase
overall. Yet this increase incorporates contrasting developments:
life sentences with the possibility for parole have declined slightly
while life sentences without the possibility of parole have
increased by 8.6 percent.
Four states, shown below, have increased the proportion of
LWP and LWOP prisoners within their prison population by
15 percent or more.

Table 6. Growing Prevalence of LWOP Sentences in
Select States
Lifers as % of

Lifers as % of

Prison Population,

Prison Population,

Percent

2012

2016

Change

Maryland

11.5%

14.6%

27.0%

Massachusetts

19.4%

22.5%

16.0%

Mississippi

9.3%

11.0%

18.3%

Vermont

5.8%

8.0%

37.9%

State

The differing pace of change may reflect more life sentences
being assigned to women than in the past, and/or fewer paroles
granted to women than to men serving life. If the decline in
LWP is due to paroles being granted to life-sentenced prisoners,
the data presented here suggest that men may be benefitting
from parole release more frequently than women, particularly
between 2012 and 2016; while the population of men serving
life with parole declined slightly the population of women serving
parole-eligible life continued to grow. The quicker pace of growth
among women serving LWP and LWOP as compared to men
runs parallel to prison growth patterns overall.37 This is true
even though women’s involvement in violent crime (for which
most people serving life are incarcerated) has not changed
considerably.

While serious crimes, including
murder, have generally declined
for the past 25 years nationwide
the number of lifers in prison
has continued to rise.

Female Lifers Rising More Quickly
Overall, 2016 data reveal more women serving life in prison
than in either 2012 or 2008.36 Between 2008 and 2016, states
added approximately 20,000 life sentences for men and 1,000
new life sentences for women, but the pace of change has been
more rapid for women given their relatively low representation
in the life-sentenced population. Overall, the pace of growth
reflects a 20 percent increase in the female life-sentenced
population between 2008 and 2016, compared to a rise of 15
percent for men.

Table 7. Expansion of Women Serving Life,
2008-2016
 

2008

2012

2016

Percent change,
2008-2016

Women
Serving LWP

3,361

3,687

3,759

11.8%

Men Serving
LWP

96,154

105,201

104,908

9.1%

1,332

1,656

1,872

40.5%

39,652

47,354

51,418

29.7%

 
Women
Serving LWOP
Men Serving
LWOP

 
Total Women
Total Men

4,693

5,343

5,631

20.0%

135,806

152,555

156,326

15.1%

20 The Sentencing Project

A Closer Look at the Expansion of LWOP
Logic suggests that trends in the prison population would mirror
trends in crime. Fluctuations in violent crime, particularly murder,
should translate to similar trends in the prison population,
especially among those serving life sentences. We would expect
to see rises in murder and other violent crime associated with
a greater number of people in prison. As crime rates decline,
we would expect a decline in the number of people in prison,
especially a decline in admissions for life without parole
sentences.38 In particular, we would expect that LWOP sentences
would increase only with a corresponding rise in serious crime.
If there was a close correlation, the unprecedented rise in life
sentences should correspond to elevated levels of serious crime
over roughly the same period. Yet, this is not what emerges from
the LWOP data. Instead, while serious crimes, including murder,
have generally declined for the past 25 years nationwide the
number of lifers in prison has continued to rise.
Table 8 shows that California, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana,
Pennsylvania, and Virginia all report considerable increases in
their LWOP population since 2003,39 despite a considerable
decline in the violent crime rate in each of these states over this
period.40

Table 8. Violent Crime and LWOP Patterns in Six
States
Decline in Violent Crime
2003-2015

Percent Rise in
LWOP 2003-2016

California

-26.4

281.6%

Florida

-36.7

99.2%

Georgia

-16.6

262.4%

Louisiana

-16.5

27.6%

Pennsylvania

-20.9

39.7%

Virginia

-29.1

506.4%

State

Georgia
More detailed data from Georgia illustrates the mismatch between
serious crime and LWOP sentences. Despite actively working
toward reducing its prison population through statewide criminal
justice reforms, the Georgia Department of Corrections reports
that there were more than 2.5 times as many individuals serving
LWOP sentences in 2016 than in 2003 when 354 individuals
were serving LWOP. Between 2003 and 2016, an average of 69
people serving LWOP sentences were added to the population
each year. Georgia has also experienced growth in its indeterminate
life-sentenced population, though at a slower pace. At the same
time, violent crime in Georgia has declined by 16.6 percent since
2003. More recently, the state prison population has also been
decreasing, with 2,985 fewer prisoners reported in 2015 than in
2010.41

Figure 8. Violent Crime Rate and LWOP Population
in Georgia, 2000-2016
1,400
LWOP

1,200
1,000
800
600
400

2015

2016

2013

2014

2011

2012

2010

2008

2007

2006

2005

2004

2002

2003

2001

2000

0

2009

Violent crime rate per 100,000

200

Harsh new sentencing laws help to explain the rapid rise in
Georgia’s LWOP sentences during this period. In 1992, Georgia
passed a habitual offender bill known as the Seven Deadly Sins
law that required life with parole sentences for murder and
required a 10-year minimum sentence for kidnapping, armed
robbery, rape, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery,
and aggravated child molestation. Upon a second felony
conviction for one of these crimes individuals must be sentenced
to life without the possibility of parole. In 1996, the state
abolished parole for all the felonies listed above, meaning that
all life sentences are ineligible for parole. State statistics show
that 32 percent of state prisoners have been convicted under
the Seven Deadly Sins law.42
In addition to rapidly rising LWOP figures, statutory changes
have also caused a build-up of LWP prisoners in Georgia. The
state’s life-with-parole population is the fourth highest in the
country, with 7,553 people serving indeterminate life sentences.
Among the state’s prisoners, 14.2 percent are serving LWP.
Legislative changes may explain this build up: in 1995, the state
moved to double the length of time before a first opportunity
for parole from seven years to 14 years; in 2006 this was extended
to 30 years.

DRIVERS OF LIFE SENTENCES
A variety of factors other than crime trends explain the continued
nationwide increase in life sentences. One driver is fear: singular
stories provoke a desire for safety because of their cruelty and
violence, and too often set the tone for crime policy and practice.
There is a tendency to generalize the outcome of a single released
prisoner who goes on to commit a violent crime as indicative
of all prisoners if they are given the chance. In reality, these
tragic outcomes are rare, and even more so among people serving
life sentences despite the gravity of their original crime.43
A second driver is related to the first and centers on the political
gains made by elected officials through appearing sufficiently
tough on crime, even when criminologists have discredited the
effectiveness of overly harsh justice policies. In describing
Connecticut’s plan to eliminate the death penalty in 2012, officials
assured the public that its replacement would impose an even
harsher penalty than “just” LWOP. The 11 prisoners on death
row, as well as all future individuals convicted of capital murder
crimes, would spend the rest of their lives in solitary confinement.
Governor Dannel Malloy said, “Going forward, we will have a
system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living
conditions none of us would want to experience.”44

Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 21

Lasting Politics and Policy from the Tough on
Crime Era
Statutory changes over the past three decades have extended
prison sentences to include or mandate life in prison for certain
crimes. This has been accomplished through “tough on crime”
laws such as habitual offender laws, truth-in-sentencing laws,
mandatory minimums, and the abolition of parole.

outcome was that most individuals sentenced under the HFOA
had committed a less serious, often nonviolent offenses such
as a burglary. Revisions have been made to the law to correct
for this, but they have not been made retroactive.
Individuals like Lydia Diane Jones were swept up under the
law. In 1997, Jones moved out of her home and into her
childhood home to care for her terminally ill father. She
returned to her home four months later to retrieve items
and was arrested. Unbeknownst to her, Jones’s former
boyfriend had been using her home while she was away to
store and sell marijuana. She was convicted for marijuana
possession but because it was her fourth felony, she was
sentenced to life without parole. Her initial three felonies
resulted from a single incident 17 years earlier. Jones was
ultimately exonerated based on demonstration of an
inadequate legal defense.

Life-sentenced prisoners make up 22 percent of the state prison
population in Alabama, and the state’s proportion of life
sentences for nonviolent crimes is one of the highest in the
nation; 16 percent of lifers have been convicted of a nonviolent
offense. Alabama has also experienced an above average pace
of growth in life sentences over time, surpassing the growth in
its overall prison population.45
Individuals receive LWOP for nonhomicide offenses via the
state’s Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA), first enacted in
1977.46 The law requires that persons convicted of Class A
felonies47 receive LWOP if they have three prior felony
convictions. Though the intent of the law was to seek tougher
sanctions for those who commit multiple serious offenses, the

Figure 9. Trends in Alabama Life Sentences and Violent Crime
6,000

1,000
Life sentences

Violent crime rate

900

5,000

800

Life setences

600
3,000

500
400

2,000

300
200

1,000

100
0

Note: Data unavailable 2013-2015.

22 The Sentencing Project

2016

2014

2012

2010

2008

2006

2004

2002

2000

1998

1996

1994

1992

1990

1988

1986

1984

1982

1980

0

Violent crime rate per 100,000

700

4,000

Habitual offender laws have also broadened the use of LWOP
in Massachusetts. In 2012, the state revised its habitual offender
law under House Bill 4286 to require that individuals convicted
under the law serve the maximum time with no parole opportunity
after a third felony conviction. Before the law was passed, LWOP
was limited to convictions for first degree murder; the legislation
expanded to 20 the number of crimes that could result in
LWOP.48

example, in Georgia the initial wait time before parole review
at one time was seven years but has been moved to 30 years for
crimes committed after 1995. In Missouri, a 1994 law extended
the initial wait time from 13 years to 23 years. In Missouri,
prisoners used to wait two years after a parole denial before
their next possible review; in 1993 lawmakers changed this to
five years.55

Delaware revised its “three strikes” statute in 2016 to increase
the number of prior convictions for certain offenses required
to trigger the classification as a habitual offender and replaced
the mandatory sentence of life in prison with a sentence of “up
to life.”49 Because the law will be applied retroactively, some of
these prisoners could be resentenced to lesser terms. At the bill
signing, Delaware governor Markell noted “the trend of stiffer
mandatory sentences for an increasing number of crimes hasn’t
worked.”50

As part of Tennessee’s Truth in Sentencing Act of 1995,
life-sentenced prisoners must serve their full 60-year
minimum term, with a possibility of sentence credits allowing
a preliminary parole review after 51 years. Jacob Davis is
one of the prisoners serving life with parole in Tennessee.
In a jealous rage, high school senior Davis killed his former
girlfriend’s new boyfriend in 1997. Though his crime was
very serious, he had never previously been in trouble with
the law. He was convicted of first degree murder, reckless
endangerment with a deadly weapon, and carrying a weapon
on school property and sentenced to life with parole. His
case is currently on appeal and his attorneys claim that the
life-with-parole sentence in Tennessee is equivalent to LWOP
because of its duration, and therefore duplicative of the
LWOP statute. Unless there is a modification to his sentence,
Davis will be 70 years old by the time he becomes eligible
for parole.

Extending Wait Times Before Parole Review
“Tough on crime” rhetoric has misrepresented life sentences as
lenient and aided in spreading the idea that life-sentenced
prisoners only serve a fraction of their original punishment.
One study of Texas jurors who served in capital murder trials
found that they routinely underestimated the number of years
to be served for a capital murder conviction in the absence of
the death penalty, “with the average juror believing a person
sentenced to life in prison will be paroled after 15 years.”51 In
fact, the impetus for “truth-in-sentencing” laws derives partly
from a conviction that the public is being lied to in regard to
the amount of time served in prison.52 Under Texas law at the
time of the study, prisoners would have to serve a minimum of
40 years before parole consideration.
The 2014 analysis of prison growth in the United States by the
National Academies’ National Research Council is widely
considered the most comprehensive study of the U. S. system
of sentencing and incarceration. Its authors find that increases
in admissions combined with lengthening of prison sentences,
has been driving the upward climb of prison populations; 51
percent of prison growth between 1980 and 2010 can be
attributed to longer prison sentences.53 Indeterminate life
sentences have become a more prevalent segment of the prison
population through prolonging the initial wait time before
appearing in front of the parole board and/or extending the
wait period between parole eligibility hearings.54 In recent decades,
several states have extended the minimum term of years to be
served by people serving life before parole consideration. For

THE DEATH PENALTY AS A REFERENCE POINT
FOR “LESS PUNITIVE” SENTENCES
With the exception of Alaska LWOP sentences are permissible
in all 31 states that allow the death penalty as well as 18 states
that do not have the death penalty.56 In some states—Alabama,
Illinois, and Louisiana, specifically—the adoption of an LWOP
statute was motivated directly by the Supreme Court’s ruling in
Furman v. Georgia in 1972, which temporarily banned the death
penalty nationwide.57 The expanded use of LWOP has been
attributed to Furman and, though the death penalty was reinstated
in Gregg v. Georgia four years later, some states used the instability
of the legal issues to justify broadening the use of LWOP by,
for example, making it mandatory in cases of first degree murder
and other offenses.58
Some of the spread of non-capital LWOP may be due,
paradoxically, to the promotion of LWOP in campaigns to repeal
the death penalty.59 The push to exchange death sentences for
LWOP sentences has been successful in part due to this strategy,
though most of the success should be attributed to innocence

Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 23

campaigns, demonstrations of inefficiency, and complications
with execution methods. Death sentences have been steadily
declining for many years now. While some proponents of LWOP
contend that it serves as an effective alternative to the death
penalty, a causal relationship between the two is not evident.
Between 1992 and 2016, there was a 12.7 percent increase in
the number of people on death row while over the same period
the LWOP population rose 328 percent. With 53,290 people
serving LWOP as of 2016, it is not plausible that all, or even
most, would be on death row if not for LWOP as the alternative.60
Legal scholars Jordan Steiker and Carol Steiker show that “…
even if the entire decline in death sentencing were (implausibly)
attributed to LWOP, the number of capital defendants affected
by LWOP’s introduction would still be dwarfed by the number
of noncapital defendants affected by its widespread adoption
and use.”61 Instead of receiving death sentences, it is more likely
the case that many of the LWOP sentences would have otherwise
been sentences that included the possibility for parole. LWOP’s
widespread use in both capital and noncapital crimes has had a
normalizing effect on extreme sentences and places an upward
pressure on sentences across the spectrum.62

Between 1992 and 2016, there
was an 12.7% increase in the
number of people on death row
while over the same period the
LWOP population rose 328%.
The Public Safety Argument and the
Abandonment of Rehabilitation
Parole boards are subject to a range of pressures. Life-sentenced
prisoners who become eligible for parole encounter a process
often hindered by undue political influence, lack of rigorous
professional qualifications, and bureaucratic obstacles that delay
or deny their opportunity for release. Perhaps the chief obstacle
that life-sentenced prisoners must cope with is the gravity of
their original crime, which weighs heavily on parole decisions
even though it typically has occurred decades ago and was taken
into account at sentencing.63
Some argue that the crimes committed by those serving life
sentences are so serious that rehabilitation is simply unattainable
or that lifelong punishment “fits the crime.” An exception to
24 The Sentencing Project

this line of thinking has recently emerged concerning juveniles,
who are seen as amenable to rehabilitation because of their
developmental immaturity.
The evolving maturity of young adults leads to a sharp decline
in criminal tendencies by the late-thirties; and therefore
incarceration beyond a period of 15 to 20 years, even for serious
crimes, produces diminishing returns for public safety. The
National Research Council is the latest authority to note that
long term sentences serve little purpose other than to reinforce
the retributive goal of corrections. This is partially explained by
the age-crime curve, which reliably predicts the tendency to
commit crime at various ages.64 It shows that most criminal
offending declines substantially beginning in the mid-20s and
has tapered off substantially by one’s late 30s. This is partially
explained through neuroscientific evidence that shows brain
development reaching its final form during one’s mid-20s. Before
this time, accurate calculations of risk are still maturing and
appreciation for consequences of behavior is not fully in place.65
The researchers conclude that “[a]ge is one of the most robust
predictors of criminal behavior.”66 This is not due to an
inexplicable association of age and crime, however, but to social
and psychosocial developments that co-occur with age. Even
those defined as “career offenders” tend to desist from crime
at relatively early ages.
Rene Lima-Marin is a Colorado prisoner serving virtual life.
Lima-Marin was originally sentenced to 98 years for his role
in a robbery of a video store in 1998.67 Because of a clerical
error made by the Department of Corrections that listed
his sentences as concurrent instead of consecutive, he was
released decades before his prison sentence was supposed
to end, after serving 10 years in prison. During his years of
freedom, Lima-Marin married, had two children, purchased
a home, and held down steady employment. Most importantly,
he completed five crime-free years on parole. But once the
Department of Corrections error was discovered in 2014
Lima-Marin was returned to prison. The clerical error
allowed a natural experiment to unfold and showed that
Lima-Marin had reformed his life and was capable of being
a productive member of society. After his return to prison
in 2014, Lima-Marin was informed that his parole date will
be in the year 2054. He will be 74 years old and his children
will be close to middle-aged.68 He is currently appealing his
sentence.

Many of the prisoners serving life sentences demonstrate
considerable personal transformation. Life-sentenced prisoners
are frequently called upon by prison staff to serve as mentors
to newly arrived prisoners.69 In addition, multiple studies confirm
that the prevalence of misconduct is quite low compared to
non-life prisoners, in contrast to the theory that life-sentenced
prisoners are more volatile because they have “nothing to lose.”70
Research on people sentenced to life who exit prison finds
remarkably low recidivism rates among them. In 2012, Maryland’s
appellate court ruled in Unger v. State that life sentences handed
down before 1981 violated due process protections due to
misleading jury instructions. As a result, more than 100 lifers
have been released, and not a single one had been convicted of
a new felony as of 2016.71
Sixty-one-year-old Alva Polke is serving a virtual life sentence
in Georgia. He has been incarcerated for 18 years and has
not had a disciplinary infraction in 14 years.72 Polke currently
serves as a mentor to other prisoners and has earned several
certificates for in-prison accomplishments, including
completion of a course on reentry. He has maintained close
ties with his family through his incarceration. Polke is currently
serving a de facto life sentence for possession with intent to
sell approximately $200 worth of cocaine. Polke was subjected
to the state’s recidivist statute because of prior drug
convictions and, because of the transaction’s proximity to
public housing. Polke’s 40-year sentence was increased to 60
years. Attorneys for Polke have noted that his sentence exceeds
the maximum allowable punishment for certain homicides,
sex offenses, and other violent crimes.

Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 25

REFORM RECOMMENDATIONS
1.	 ELIMINATE LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE AND
DRAMATICALLY SCALE BACK OTHER LIFE
SENTENCES
This report makes clear that life sentences are a growing portion
of the prison population. In 2016 more than 200,000 prisoners
were serving some form of a life sentence, representing one of
every seven (13.9%) prisoners overall. Despite the pursuit of
necessary criminal justice reforms at the margins of the system,
reforms to the laws and practices that perpetuate life sentences
have been rare, and the focus has been too narrow to fully
challenge mass incarceration.
Growing support for decarceration and proposals for sentencing
reforms for low-level offenses are frequently paired with the
preservation of harsh penalties for serious and violent crimes.
This strategy has been pursued without consideration of its
impact on the exact problem that policymakers are attempting
to fix: a bloated and expensive prison population that far
surpasses that of any other nation in the world. Individuals with
violent crimes in their past—even their distant past—do not
qualify for inclusion in most “comprehensive” reform discussions
that attempt to ease prison populations because of the serious
nature of their crimes. These policy approaches are likely to
disappoint lawmakers who expect considerable savings generated
from reform.
The cost for life imprisonment is high, in the range of $1 million
per adult prisoner, with prison expenses rising precipitously
after middle-age.73 A partial cause of the eventual doubling of
expenses as prisoners age is the heavy toll that prison itself has
on human health. Typically, people entering incarceration already
exhibit poorer health compared to the general population, but
the harsh prison environment, accompanied by inadequate
treatment, exacerbates prisoners’ health status and accelerates
the aging process. People in prison experience higher rates of
both chronic and infectious diseases as compared to the general
population.
Internationally, human rights concerns surrounding life sentences
are evident. Consider the case of Vinter and Others v. The United
26 The Sentencing Project

Kingdom, where the imposition of three life sentences triggered
concerns about the practice. The cases were reviewed for possible
international human rights violations74 and the Court ruled in
a vote of 16-1 that lifelong imprisonment without the possibility
of parole review was indeed a violation. A total of 49 people
were serving life sentences at the time and were ordered to
receive modified sentences. Notably, at the time of the ruling
the United States had 100 times more people serving such
sentences.
Around the world an estimated 536,000 individuals are serving
life sentences as of 2014. With the United States comprising 30
percent of the world total, this means that nearly one in three
life-sentenced prisoners worldwide is a U.S. prisoner.75

Nearly 1 in 3 life-sentenced
prisoners worldwide is a
U.S. prisoner.
Utilize Momentum from the Juvenile Rulings
One approach to limiting life sentences is to adapt the recent
policy shifts in the juvenile arena for adults. Graham v. Florida
ruled that LWOP sentences were disproportionate when applied
to nonhomicide crimes. If applied to all adults, this would have
the potential to impact 12,250 people currently serving LWOP,
or 23 percent of the LWOP population. Miller v. Alabama ruled
that juveniles could not receive LWOP for a homicide conviction
in states that apply the sentence mandatorily. If this same
judgment was applied to all prisoners serving mandatory LWOP
for first-degree murder, 20,342 people, or 38 percent of the
LWOP population, could potentially earn a sentence review.
This would not necessarily lead to a release of any given prisoner,
but would allow for a sentence review when applied retroactively.
Legal scholars are generally not optimistic about the successful
extension of Graham, Miller, and Montgomery to adults through
the courts.76 To the contrary, the rulings may have made it even

more difficult for adults to demonstrate their amenability for
reform, as they set the upper age limit at 17. Specifically, the
Graham opinion stated “a child’s character is not as well formed
as an adult’s; his traits are less fixed and his actions are less likely
to be evidence of irretrievable depravity.”77 Just as jurisprudence
on the death penalty has been clear to say that “death is different,”
the Court has made clear that in these cases, the second look is
because “children are different.”

2.	 IMPROVE THE PROCESS OF PAROLE
The limitations of the parole process for lifers have been
underscored by the requirement for a “meaningful opportunity
for parole” for life-sentenced juveniles in Graham v. Florida.
Graham called for a review mechanism that is problematic on
its own. In a recent report by The Sentencing Project, we
documented a series of problems with parole, including long
wait times, the politicization of the parole process, gubernatorial
overreach in the decision to grant parole, an absence of the
presumption of release at parole hearings, and limited rights
and protections afforded to prisoners appearing before the
parole board.78
The severity of the crime is a prime factor in the original
sentencing decision, but many parole boards either through
policy or practice, take it upon themselves to incorporate the
severity of the crime into the decision to grant or deny parole,
a practice which amounts to relitigating the case.79 Most parole
systems rely heavily on the crime of conviction in deliberating
the parole decision, which places people serving an indeterminate
life sentence at a distinct disadvantage due to the severity of the
crime in many cases.80 Research suggests that those convicted
of violent crimes are less likely to be granted parole than those
convicted of other offenses despite their assessed risk to public
safety.81 In a study of parole decisions in New Jersey, the authors
found that crime of conviction was the most influential factor
in parole decisions. This result is surprising considering that
under the New Jersey Parole Act of 1979, crime of conviction
was identified as a factor that should not influence parole
decision-making.82
Second, time served prior to appearing before a parole board
plays a significant role in decision-making which, like crime of
conviction, disproportionately impacts life-sentenced individuals.
A punitive measure enacted in many states has been to extend
the initial wait time before parole appearance and the wait time
between parole hearings. A prisoner who historically served 10
years until his or her first parole hearing may wait 20 years today.

Two final shortcomings of many parole systems are the lack of
experience and lack of distance from political influence that is
required of its members. A recent comprehensive review of
parole systems in the United States concluded that parole boards
should be reconstructed to require a degree of expertise in
criminal justice fields, advanced education degrees, and
independence from political influence. A New York Times expose
of the New York parole process revealed only cursory reviews
of prisoner files before a parole hearing and fewer than 20
minutes spent in any given hearing.
Improvements in the structure and composition of the process
can begin to move eligible life-sentenced prisoners through the
system, releasing those who show they are qualified for freedom
and holding back those who require more time in prison before
they are ready.

3.	 AUTHORIZE MID-COURSE ADJUSTMENTS
Clemency is one meaningful way to adjust prison sentences
mid-course. A power reserved for the president and state
governors, clemency ensures a method of checks and balances
on the other branches of government. In any prison sentence,
the executive reserves the power to correct or mitigate the effects
of an overly harsh law or judicial decision. Over the past half
century, its use has become increasingly scrutinized and a result
is that governors are increasingly reluctant to use this authority.
In Graham v. Florida, Justice Kennedy acknowledged the lack of
dependability on clemency, noting that it fails as a reliable tool
to mitigate the harshness of a sentence because it is used only
in exceptional cases.83
The recent use of clemency at the federal level can serve as an
example for state-level clemencies, which have declined
considerably over the past several decades.84 For most of the
20th century, life-sentenced prisoners in the federal system were
eligible for parole after 15 years; this was reduced to 10 years in
1976.85 Beginning in 1987, however, parole was abolished and
all prospective life sentences were ineligible for parole.
President Barack Obama granted an unprecedented number of
clemencies to federal prisoners, an act that is unusual both for
any modern president or governor. By the time he left office,
Obama had commuted 1,715 federal sentences, one third of
which were life sentences for nonviolent crimes. President
Obama’s actions in this regard called attention to a sentencing
system and corrections system that was unsustainable and had
become overgrown, leaving little recourse except this sort of
backend adjustment.86

Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 27

Before he was granted clemency by President Obama in
March 2015, Norman Brown had already served 24.5 years
of a life sentence with no opportunity for parole for a
nonviolent drug offense. The sentencing judge admitted
Brown’s sentence was disproportionate but was unable to
alter because of mandatory minimums. Brown applied for
clemency in 2010, a process he describes as “like a drowning
man reaching for a spider web,” which illustrates the futility
of his hopes for release. He eventually did receive clemency
and has been free since July of 2015. In describing his
experience of life in prison, he makes the following
observation: If you leave us in prison…in there [for] too
long, we can become rotten. And as I seen many people left
in prison…these draconian sentences have left them in there
and they’re rotting away. And in the process of them rotting
away, society loses out on the gifts that we have to give
them.”87
A second method for mid-course review has been proposed by
the American Law Institute (ALI), a nonpartisan body of legal
scholars who make recommendations for model penal codes.
Regarding long prison terms including life sentences, they offer
a “second look” provision.88 The ALI recommends that a “judge
or judicial panel revisit the sentence of any prisoner who has
served 15 years or more in prison, and decide if, under present
circumstances, the sentence originally imposed or a different
sentence better serves the purposes of sentencing.” The emphasis
is on changed circumstances, which may mean changed societal
assessments of offense gravity, new technologies of risk
assessment or treatment, or major changes in the individual or
their family circumstances, the crime victims or the community.
The idea behind the second look provision is that not only can
the individual change, but society can change as well. 
Such a mechanism would help to allay the concerns of judges
whose hands are tied by mandatory minimum sentences. Consider
the remarks of Oklahoma Judge Charles Chapel in response to
a denied appeal of an LWOP sentence given to a 15-year-old
boy:
[H]is sentence in my judgment, violates the 8th
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution…He was barely
15 when he committed the crime; he is emotionally and
psychologically immature; he is learning disabled and
functioned for several years below his peers; he has
strong family support; he had never before been in any
kind of legal trouble; and the evidence in support of
his motion [to be transferred to the juvenile court] was
28 The Sentencing Project

overwhelming and essentially unrebutted…Sentencing
him to life without parole is quite simply hideous and
a travesty of justice.89
Northwestern University philosophy professor Jennifer Lackey
teaches life-sentenced prisoners in Illinois. Over her years of
teaching she has come to know that prisoners are not the only
ones who change in remarkable ways. Victims and their families
can come to see the prisoner as worthy of forgiveness and of
a second chance. Public attitudes can also change, evolving
from the zealous “war on crime” approach to one that
incorporates a broader view of immense societal disadvantages
that frequently accompany criminal acts.90

CONCLUSION
Life sentences are at an all-time high, with 161,957 people serving
life with or without parole sentences nationwide. A third of
them will never have the opportunity for parole, a term which
released LWOP prisoner Norman Brown aptly calls “superpunishment.”91 If we include those sentenced to de facto life
terms of 50 years or more before parole, this brings the total
to 206,268, or 13.9 percent of the prison population. In 2016,
one in seven prisoners was serving a life or virtual life prison
sentence.
The increased prevalence of life sentences stands at odds with
attempts to scale back mass incarceration. The massive use of
incarceration has come under scrutiny over the past decade as
unlikely allies have joined to call for reforms on both fiscal and
moral grounds. The shifting climate for criminal justice reform
has been encouraging, with bipartisan support for longrecommended revisions to sentencing laws at the federal and
state level. Opportunities to further shift the direction of our
criminal justice system must be seized by advocates to incorporate
reform for life sentences in order to dismantle the uniquely
American structure of mass incarceration.

Disproportionate racial and ethnic composition is another
worrying feature of this population, with one in five black
prisoners serving a life sentence. Persistent racial disparities are
harmful on their own but also serve to delegitimize the system
more broadly.
Lifelong imprisonment is not the best course of action for most
people for the reasons outlined above, nor is it a valuable outcome
for society. Legal scholar Michael O’Hear reminds us that policies
rooted in fear and anger are misguided, and that providing even
those who have committed serious crimes with “...a realistic
path back to ‘ordinary civic life in a free society’ may be as much
for our benefit as for theirs.”94

Scholars provide empirical evidence that shows diminishing
public safety benefits associated with incarceration beyond a
certain point. Some also reason that the expansive and somewhat
arbitrary use of imprisonment weakens its general deterrence
value. In a speech to members of the American Bar Association
in 2013, former Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged
that “too many Americans go to prisons for too long and for
no truly good law enforcement reason.”92 These are among the
factors that have brought the issue of mass incarceration to the
center of criminal justice reform debates in a way not previously
seen, arguing that it is a system that is both wasteful and unjust.93
These same concerns arise in lifelong imprisonment.
The broad use of long-term and life sentences for nonhomicide
crimes despite claims that these sentences are reserved for the
worst of the worst is troubling; more than 17,000 lifers have
been convicted of nonviolent crimes, and nearly 12,000 people
serving life sentences were juveniles at the time of their crime.
Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 29

APPENDICES
A: METHODOLOGY
The data in this report come directly from the state and federal
departments of corrections. We first contacted research divisions
within the state and federal departments of corrections in January
2016 requesting the total number of people in prison as well as
those serving life with parole, life without parole, and sentences
of 50 years or more before release on the most recent date
available. The most common date provided was the date of the
query. Within each of these three groups of prisoners (LWP,
LWOP, and virtual life), we also requested breakdowns by race,
ethnicity, gender, juvenile status, and crime of conviction. A
complete copy of the survey that jurisdictions received is
provided in Appendix B. Follow-up emails and phone calls were
made until November 2016 for reminders of our request or for
clarification on data submitted. States were invited to review
their submission from 2012 and adjust their reported figures
for that year if needed.
In most states the revisions were minor but Illinois revised its
LWP count significantly from an original count of 1,141 LWP
prisoners to a total of five individuals serving LWP. The
explanation for this revision in 2016 to the number in 2012 lies
in an error in the original count for 2012: the persons initially
listed as LWP were in fact term-of-years prisoners who are
required remain under correctional supervision for life, but do
not have “life with parole.”
In two states, California and New Jersey, we were required to
provide full research proposals as well as to submit our survey
to an independent Institutional Review Board for approval
before gaining access to the requested data. We were approved
in both instances. In total, we received data from all states and
the federal Bureau of Prisons, with the exception of the state
of Virginia. Though Virginia refused to supply data (as it has
in all past years that we have submitted data requests, citing its
very broad FOIA statute), we received helpful data from the
state’s Criminal Sentencing Commission. In specific, we received
data on new life sentences added for each year between 1995
and 2016. The data from the Criminal Sentencing Commission
does not include capital offenses, which are punishable by death
30 The Sentencing Project

or life in prison. To arrive at the most accurate count possible,
we also reviewed data concerning life sentences provided by
research staff from the department of corrections for the state’s
Parole Reform Commission in 2015.95
Though the mention of virtual life or de facto life sentences
has become a more frequent part of scholarly and policy
discussions about life in prison generally, the term of years that
should amount to virtual life is not yet settled.96 Scholar Jessica
Henry has written extensively on the need to incorporate de
facto life sentences into the broader conversation about life
sentences overall. In her comments she notes that there is
difficulty in setting a term of years to define virtual life since
the age of the individual at the time of prison admission is a
critical component of the calculation.97 The courts have been
even more unclear on where to draw the line. We selected 50
years as a conservative estimate of virtual life based on the
following rationale: in 2013, the life expectancy of a 39-year-old
male (the typical age someone entering prison) for a long-term
or life sentence was about 40 additional years.98 This suggests
that to survive a lengthy sentence, one must be released before
the age of 79. Add to this the increased probability of a premature
death for those who are incarcerated,99 and one can see that a
minimum sentence of 50 years or more as equivalent to “virtual
life” is reasonable.

B: SURVEY INSTRUMENT
Thank you for providing the following information about your state’s population of inmates sentenced to: (1) life with the
possibility of parole, (2) life without the possibility of parole, and (3) those sentenced to prison for a maximum of 50 years or
more. If you have any questions as you complete this form, please be in touch with Ashley Nellis at anellis@sentencingproject.
org or 202-628-0871. Your completed form can be emailed, faxed or mailed to our office at the address listed at the bottom of
this form.

NAME OF STATE: ________________
Current State Prison Population:_____________ as of ______________.

SECTION 1: PERSONS SERVING LIFE WITH THE POSSIBILITY OF PAROLE
A. Number of Persons 18 OR OLDER AT OFFENSE

B. Number of Persons UNDER 18 AT OFFENSE

Total Number: ________

Total Number: ________

Gender

Gender

Male______ Female______

Male______ Female______

Race (Non-Hispanic)

Race (Non-Hispanic)

White: ____ African American____ Other_____
Ethnicity

White: ____ African American____ Other_____
Ethnicity

Hispanic: _______

Hispanic: _______

Crime of Commitment

Crime of Commitment

1st Deg. Murder : __________

1st Deg. Murder : __________

2nd Deg. Murder : _________

2nd Deg. Murder : _________

Other Death (not 1st or 2nd Deg. Murder): ________

Other Death (not 1st or 2nd Deg. Murder): ________

Sexual Assault/Rape : ________

Sexual Assault/Rape : ________

Agg. Assault/Robbery/Kidnaping : _________

Agg. Assault/Robbery/Kidnaping : _________

Drug Offense : __________

Drug Offense : __________

Property Offense: ________

Property Offense: ________

Other : ____________

Other : ____________

Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 31

SECTION 2: PERSONS SERVING LIFE WITHOUT THE POSSIBILITY OF PAROLE
A. Number of Persons 18 OR OLDER AT OFFENSE

B. Number of Persons UNDER 18 AT OFFENSE

Total Number: ________

Total Number: ________

Gender

Gender

Male______ Female______
Race (Non-Hispanic)
White: ____ African American____ Other_____
Ethnicity
Hispanic: _______
Crime of Commitment

Male______ Female______
Race (Non-Hispanic)
White: ____ African American____ Other_____
Ethnicity
Hispanic: _______
Crime of Commitment

1st Deg. Murder : __________

1st Deg. Murder : __________

2nd Deg. Murder : _________

2nd Deg. Murder : _________

Other Death (not 1st or 2nd Deg. Murder): ________

Other Death (not 1st or 2nd Deg. Murder): ________

Sexual Assault/Rape : ________

Sexual Assault/Rape : ________

Agg. Assault/Robbery/Kidnaping : _________

Agg. Assault/Robbery/Kidnaping : _________

Drug Offense : __________

Drug Offense : __________

Property Offense: ________

Property Offense: ________

Other : ____________

Other : ____________

32 The Sentencing Project

SECTION 3: PERSONS SENTENCED TO 50 YEARS OR MORE BEFORE RELEASE
The numbers provided in this section should include inmates who could potentially be released prior to their maximum through
good-time credits and/or parole.
EXAMPLES OF THE TYPE OF INMATE WHO SHOULD BE INCLUDED:
1.	 An inmate who has been sentenced to 60 years but is parole eligible after 25 years.
2.	 An inmate who has been sentenced to two separate terms of 25 years to be served consecutively.
3.	 An inmate who has been sentenced to a range of years from 40 to 50 years.
A. Number of Persons 18 OR OLDER AT OFFENSE

B. Number of Persons UNDER 18 AT OFFENSE

Total Number: ________

Total Number: ________

Gender

Gender

Male______ Female______

Male______ Female______

Race (Non-Hispanic)

Race (Non-Hispanic)

White: ____ African American____ Other_____
Ethnicity

White: ____ African American____ Other_____
Ethnicity

Hispanic: _______

Hispanic: _______

Crime of Commitment

Crime of Commitment

1st Deg. Murder : __________

1st Deg. Murder : __________

2nd Deg. Murder : _________

2nd Deg. Murder : _________

Other Death (not 1st or 2nd Deg. Murder): ________

Other Death (not 1st or 2nd Deg. Murder): ________

Sexual Assault/Rape : ________

Sexual Assault/Rape : ________

Agg. Assault/Robbery/Kidnaping : _________

Agg. Assault/Robbery/Kidnaping : _________

Drug Offense : __________

Drug Offense : __________

Property Offense: ________

Property Offense: ________

Other : ____________

Other : ____________

Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 33

ENDNOTES
1	 Vinter and Others v. United Kingdom, App nos. 66069/09, 130/10
and 3896/10 (July 9 2013).
2	 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.
3	 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.
4	 Carson, E. A. & Anderson, E. (2016). Prisoners in 2015. Washington,
DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Guerino, P., Harrison, P. M., &
Sabol, W. (2011). Prisoners in 2010. Washington, DC: Bureau of
Justice Statistics.
5	 Kazemian, L. & Travis, J. (2015). Imperative for inclusion of long
termers and lifers in research and policy. Criminology and Public Policy,
14(2), 355-395.
6	 Oklahoma Senate Bill 185 of the 1st session of the 56th legislature
(2017). Available online: http://webserver1.lsb.state.ok.us/cf_
pdf/2017-18%20ENGR/SB/SB185%20ENGR.PDF.
7	 Gibson, B. (2017). A call to give early release to older, medically frail
prisoners. Oklahoma Watch. Available online: http://oklahomawatch.
org/2017/03/06/should-older-medically-frail-prisoners-bereleased-early/; Oklahoma Department of Corrections (2016).
Annual report, 2015. Oklahoma City: Oklahoma. Available online:
https://www.ok.gov/doc/documents/annual%20report%202015.
pdf.
8	 Farrington, D. P. (1986). Age and crime. In M. Tonry & N. Morris
(Eds.) Crime and justice: An annual review of research. Volume 7.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Sweeten, G., Piquero, A.
R., & Steinberg, L. (2013). Age and the explanation of crime,
revisited. Journal of Adolescence 42, 932-938.
9	 Blumstein, A., Cohen, J., & Hirsch, J. (1982). The duration of adult
criminal careers: Final report. Pittsburgh: Carnegie-Mellon University;
Blumstein, A. & Nakamura, K. (2009). Redemption in the presence
of widespread criminal background checks. Criminology, 46, 327359.
10	 Carson, E. A. & Anderson, E. (2016). Prisoners in 2015. Washington,
DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
11	 Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Report Series, 19842015, Table 4.
12	 States that have abolished parole altogether or for those sentenced
to life include: Arizona. Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine,
Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia and Wisconsin. In addition,
the federal government has abolished its parole system.
13	 Utah is a state with an indeterminate sentencing scheme in which
lifers are sentences to terms that are indeterminate in length but
have a maximum term of life in prison.
14	 United States v. Lewis 594 F. 3d 1270 (10th Circuit 2010).
15	 Pennsylvania Code, Title 18, Chapter 25, Section 2502(b).
16	 Binder, G. (2011). Making the best of felony murder. Boston
University Law Review 91: 403-559.
17	 The U.S. Supreme Court has limited but not banned the use of
the death penalty for those convicted of felony murder. See Enmund
v. Florida 458 U.S. 782 (1982) and Tison v. Arizona 481 U.S. 137
(1987).
18	 Benshoff, L. (2017). With commutation the window to freedom
opens a crack for lifers in Pa. Newsworks. Available online: http://
www.newsworks.org/index.php/local/philadelphia/94183-withcommutation-the-window-to-freedom-opens-a-crack-for-lifersin-pa
19	 Carson, E. A. & Anderson, E. (2016). Prisoners in 2015. Washington,
DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

34 The Sentencing Project

20	 There are 1,517 federal prisoners serving a life sentence with parole
(117) or without parole (1,400) serving life for a crime categorized
as “other.” Upon request, the Bureau of Prisons provided us with
a disaggregated list of the crimes that are grouped under this
category. The list is consistent with research published by the
United States Sentencing Commission. See: Schmidtt, G. R. &
Konfrst, H.J. (2015). Life sentences in the federal system. Washington,
DC: United States Sentencing Commission.
21	 The federal government eliminated parole beginning in 1987.
22	 The Congressional Research Service states that 18 U.S.C 924(c)
requires, “one of a series of mandatory minimum terms of
imprisonment upon conviction for misconduct involving the
firearm and the commission of a federal crime of violence or a
federal drug trafficking offense. The terms vary according to the
type of firearm used, the manner of the firearm’s involvement,
and whether the conviction involves a single, first-time offense.
Liability extends to co-conspirators and to those who aid or abet
in the commission of a violation of the section.”
23	 Carson, E. A. & Anderson, E. (2016). Prisoners in 2015. Washington,
DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
24	 Harlow, C. W. (1999). Prior abuse reported by inmates and probationers.
Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
25	 Crewe, B., Hulley, S., & Wright, S. (2017). The gendered pains of
life imprisonment. Journal of British Criminology; Leigey, M. and
Reed, K. (2014. 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;
26	 Nellis, A. (2012). The lives of juvenile lifers: Findings from a national
survey. Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.
27	 Nellis, A. (2016). The color of justice. Washington DC: The Sentencing
Project.
28	 The remainder were identified as “other.”
29	 The juvenile/adult status of those serving life or virtual life
sentences was not provided by the federal Bureau of Prisons
because it was claimed to be “too burdensome” to calculate.
Washington, DC does not have any individuals serving LWP or
LWOP for crimes committed under 18, and the number of juveniles
serving terms of 50 years or more was not obtained.
30	 Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011, 2030 (2010).
31	 Miller v. Alabama 1325 S. Ct. 2455 (2012).
32	 Cooper, T. (December 4, 2015). Resentenced at 60 for killing at
15. NP Telegraph. Available online: http://www.nptelegraph.com/
news/state/resentenced-at-for-killing-at/article_4d84e1fe-0b91503b-842c-a289d216db27.html
33	 Kohler-Hausemann, I., Gilbert, A. P., & Seeds, C. (2017). Children
sentenced to life: A struggle for the N.Y. Board of Parole. New
York Law Journal. Available online: http://www.newyorklawjournal.
com/id=1202776697362/Children-Sentenced-to-Life-A-Strugglefor-the-NY-Board-of-Parole?slreturn=20170214173317.
34	 Texas first adopted LWOP in 2005 but eliminated it for juveniles
in 2009; those serving life-with-parole sentences in Texas first
become eligible for parole after 40 years in prison.
35	 This is also the case for adult prisoners serving virtual life sentences
in Texas.
36	 Though data on life sentences was first reported by The Sentencing
Report in The meaning of ‘life’: Long prison sentences in context, the data
were not disaggregated by gender.
37	 This is particularly the case for white women. See, for example,
Mauer, M. (2013). The changing racial dynamics of women’s incarceration.
Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.
38	 There is some evidence that LWP sentences have grown due to
longer wait times before parole in certain states, which would have
less to do with crime rate fluctuations and more to do with politics
of parole. See Ghandnoosh, N. (2017). Delaying a second chance: The
declining prospects for parole on life sentences. Washington, DC: The
Sentencing Project.

39	 This is the first year for which LWOP data are publicly available.
40	 2016 crime data has not yet been publicly released.
41	 Carson, E. A. & Anderson, E. (2016). Prisoners in 2015. Washington,
DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Guerino, P., Harrison, P. M., &
Sabol, W. (2011). Prisoners in 2010. Washington, DC: Bureau of
Justice Statistics.
42	 Georgia Department of Corrections (2017). Friday Report, February
24, 2017. Atlanta: Author. Available online: http://www.dcor.state.
ga.us/Research/Standing_Friday_Report
43	 Liem, M. Zahn, M., & Tichavsky, L. (2014). Criminal recidivism
among homicide offenders. Journal of Interpersonal Violence,
1-22; Mauer, M., King, R. S., & Young, M. C. (2004). The meaning
of ‘life’: Long prison sentences in context. Washington, DC: The
Sentencing Project.
44	 Ridgeway, J. & Casella, A. (2012). Connecticut votes to replace the
death penalty with life in solitary confinement. Solitary Watch.
Available online: http://solitarywatch.com/2012/04/12/
connecticut-legislature-votes-to-replace-the-death-penalty-withlife-in-solitary-confinement/
45	 Schartmueller, D. (2015). Settling down behind bars: The extensive
use of life sentences in Alabama. The Prison Journal 95(4), 449-471.
46	 Schartmueller, D. (2015). Settling down behind bars: The extensive
use of life sentences in Alabama. The Prison Journal 95(4), 449-471.
47	 Class A felonies include murder and first degree kidnapping, rape,
robbery, burglary, and arson.
48	 Haas, G. & Fillion, L. (2016). Life without parole: A Reconsideration.
Boston: Criminal Justice Policy Coalition. The bill is available
online: http://www.mass.gov/legis/journal/desktop/Current%20
Agenda%202011/H4286.pdf.
49	 Delaware Code, Senate Bill 163; Porter, N. (2017). State advances in
criminal justice reform, 2016. Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.
50	 Delaware.Gov. (2016). Markell signs mandatory sentencing reform into
law. Dover. Available online: http://news.delaware.
gov/2016/07/20/markell-signs-mandatory-sentencing-reforminto-law/
51	 Sorenson, J. R. & Pilgrim, R. (2000). An actuarial risk assessment
of violence posed by capital murder defendants. Journal of Criminal
Law and Criminology, 90(4), 1251-1271.
52	 Mauer, M. (1996). The truth about truth in sentencing. Washington,
DC: American Correctional Association.
53	 National Research Council (2014). The growth of incarceration in the
United States: Exploring causes and consequences. Washington, DC: The
National Academies Press.
54	 Ghandnoosh, N. (2017). Delaying a second chance: The declining prospects
for parole on life sentences. Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.
55	 Ghandnoosh, N. (2017). Delaying a second chance: The declining prospects
for parole on life sentences. Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.
56	 Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved April 5, 2017: https://
deathpenaltyinfo.org/life-without-parole.
57	 Furman v. Georgia 408 U.S. 238 (2012).
58	 Schartmueller, D. (2015). Settling down behind bars: The extensive
use of life sentences in Alabama. The Prison Journal 95(4), 449-471.
59	 Gottschalk, M. (2006). The prison and the gallows: The politics of mass
incarceration in America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
Press; Steiker, C. & Steiker, J. Courting death: The Supreme Court and
Capital Punishment. Boston: Harvard University Press.
60	 Tonry, M. (2016). Sentencing fragments: Penal reform in America, 19752025. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
61	 Steiker, C. & Steiker, J. (2016). Courting death: The Supreme Court and
capital punishment. Boston: Harvard University Press: 286.
62	 Mauer, M. (2015). Testimony to Charles Colson Task Force on Federal
Corrections: A proposal to reduce time served in federal prison. Washington,
DC: The Sentencing Project; Steiker, C. & Steiker, J. (2016). Courting
death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment. Boston: Harvard
University Press.
63	 Rhine, E., Petersilia, J., & Reitz, K. (2010). Implementing parole
reform in America. Federal Sentencing Reporter 28(2): 96-104.
64	 Laub, J. & Sampson, R. (2003). Shared beginnings, divergent lives:
Delinquent boys to age 70. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

65	 Cauffman, E. & Steinberg, L. (2000). (Im)maturity of judgment
in adolescence: Why adolescents may be less culpable than adults.
Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 18(6), 741-760; Scott, E., & Steinberg,
L. (2010). Rethinking juvenile justice Boston: Harvard University
Press; Steinberg, L. & Scott, E. (2003). Less guilty by reason of
adolescence: Developmental immaturity, diminished responsibility,
and the juvenile death penalty. American Psychologist, 58(12),
1009-1018.
66	 Sweeten, G., Piquero, A.R., & Steinberg, L. (2013). Age and the
explanation of crime, revisited. Journal of Youth and Adolescence,
42(6), 921-938.
67	 According to media reports, the long sentence assigned to this
crime was possible because of a particularly aggressive prosecution
strategy in which the prosecutor “dissected” the various components
of the crime as individual crimes. This allowed him to add a charge
of kidnapping because Lima-Marin and his accomplice moved
video store employees from one room to another during the
robbery.
68	 Simpson, K. (2016). How an inmate’s second chance was yanked
away. Denver Post. Available online: http://www.denverpost.
com/2016/06/12/how-an-inmates-second-chance-was-yankedaway-after-officials-discovered-88-year-sentencing-mistake/.
69	 Johnson, R. & Dobranska, A. (2015). Mature coping among lifesentenced inmates: An exploratory study of adjusted dynamics.
Corrections Compendium, 8-28.
70	 Cunningham, M. & Sorenson, J. (2006). Nothing to lose? A
comparative examination of prison misconduct rates among lifewithout-parole and other long-term high-security inmates. Criminal
Justice and Behavior, 33(6), 683-705; Cunningham, M., Sorenson, J.,
& Reidy, J.T. (2005). An actuarial model for assessment of prison
violence risk among maximum security inmates. Assessment 12,
40-49; Weisberg, R. Mukamal, D., & Segall, J.D. (2011). Life in limbo:
An examination of parole releases for prisoners serving life sentences with the
possibility of parole in California. Stanford Law School: Stanford
Criminal Justice Center
71	 Justice Policy Institute (2016). Defining violence: Reducing incarceration
by rethinking America’s approach to violence. Washington, DC: Justice
Policy Institute; Siegel, R. (2016). From a life term to life on the outside:
When aging felons are freed. Washington, DC: National Public Radio.
72	 Polke had two disciplinary infractions throughout his imprisonment
and both were minor and nonviolent.
73	 American Civil Liberties Union (2012). At America’s expense: The
mass incarceration of the elderly. Washington, DC: ACLU.
74	 Such as Article 3 in the European Convention on Human Rights.
75	 Van Zyl Smit, D. & Appleton, C. (2017). Life imprisonment worldwide.
[Webinar]United Kingdom: University of Nottingham.
76	 Gertner, N. (2013). Miller v. Alabama: What it is, what it may be,
and what it is not. Missouri Law Review 78(4), 1041-1052.; Steiker,
C. S. & Steiker, J. M. (2008). Opening a window or building a wall?
The effect of eighth amendment death penalty law and advocacy
on criminal justice more broadly. Journal of Constitutional Law, 11(1),
155–205.
77	 Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2464 (2012), quoting Graham v.
Florida, 130 S. Ct. at 2026; Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. at 569, 570.
78	 Ghandnoosh, N. (2017). Delaying a second chance: The declining prospects
for parole on life sentences. Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.
79	 Rhine, E., Petersilia, J., & Reitz, K. (2015). Improving parole release.
Federal Sentencing Reporter (28)2: 96-104.
80	 Kinnevy, S.C. & Caplan, J. M. (2008). Findings from the APAI
International Survey of Releasing Authorities. Center for Research on
Youth and Social Policy, University of Pennsylvania; Ruhland,
E.L., Rhine, E.E., Robey, J.P., & Mitchell, K.L. (2016). The continuing
leverage of releasing authorities: Findings from a national survey, Minnesota:
The Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice.
81	 Turpin-Petrinoso, C. (1999). Are limiting enactments effective?
An experimental test of decision making in a presumptive parole
state. Journal of Criminal Justice, 27(4), 328-329; Tewksbury, R. &
Connor, D.R. (2012). Predicting the outcome of parole hearings.
Corrections Today, 55-56; Huebner, B. & Bynum T. (2008). The role
of race and ethnicity in parole decisions. Criminology, 46(4), 907938.

Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 35

82	 Turpin-Petrinoso, C. (1999). Are limiting enactments effective?
An experimental test of decision making in a presumptive parole
state. Journal of Criminal Justice, 27(4), 328-329.
83	 Graham v Florida 130 Sup Ct. 2027-2030 (2010).
84	 Gottschalk, M. (2016). Caught: The prison state and the lockdown of
American politics. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Seeds, C.
(2016) Life without parole: From sanction to condition. The Liman
Report: Moving Criminal Justice. New Haven: Yale Law School. Available
online: https://law.yale.edu/system/files/area/center/liman/
document/2016_liman_report.pdf.
85	 Hoffman, P. B. (2003) History of the federal parole system.
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. Available online:
http://www.fedcure.org/information/
TheHistoryOfTheFederalParoleSystem-2003.pdf.
86	 Passing legislative reforms to the harsh federal sentencing policies
that created the massive federal prison population in the first place
would be a more practical and proactive response. In the current
political environment, these policies have been proposed and
received bipartisan support but not yet enacted.
87	 Obama White House YouTube channel (2016). Clemency recipient
Norman Brown. Available online: https://www.youtube.com/
watch?v=LFSMxgBvzsc
88	 Rhine, E. E., Petersilia, J., & Reitz, K. R. (2015). Improving parole
release in America. Federal Sentencing Reporter 28(2): 96-104.
89	 Dissenting Opinion of Judge Chapel, Cipriano, v. Oklahoma, F-2000890, 2001.
90	 Lackey, J. (2016). The irrationality of life sentences.[Editorial] New
York Times.
91	 Obama White House YouTube channel (2016). Clemency recipient
Norman Brown. Available online: https://www.youtube.com/
watch?v=LFSMxgBvzsc.
92	 Holder, E. (2013). Attorney General Eric Holder delivers remarks at the
Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates.
San Francisco. Available onine: https://www.justice.gov/opa/
speech/attorney-general-eric-holder-delivers-remarks-annualmeeting-american-bar-associations
93	 Hamilton, M. (2016). Extreme prison sentences: Legal and
normative consequences. Cardozo Law Review, 38, 59-120; National
Research Council (2014). The growth of incarceration in the United
States: Exploring causes and consequences. Washington, DC: The National
Academies Press.
94	 O’Hear, M. (2013). Not just kid stuff ? Extending Graham and
Miller to adults. Missouri Law Review, 78(4), 1087-1146.
95	 Parole Reform Commission (2015). VADOC Demographics.
Richmond: Virginia Parole Reform Commission. Available online:
https://parolecommission.virginia.gov/resources/july-20/parolecommission-VADOC-demographics-presentation.pdf.
96	 The United States Sentencing Commission, for instance, defines
virtual life as approximately 40 years. See: Schmidtt, G. $ Konfrst,
H. J. (2015). Life sentences in the federal system. Washington, DC: United
States Sentencing Commission. Criminologist Doris Schartmueller
has defined virtual life sentences as those exceeding 35 years. See:
Schartmueller, D. (2015). Settling down behind bars: The extensive
use of life sentences in Alabama. The Prison Journal 95(4), 449-471.
97	 Henry, J. S. (2013). Death in prison sentences: Overutilized and
underscrutinized. In C. Ogletree, C. & A. Sarat (Eds), Life without
parole: America’s new death penalty? New York: New York University
Press.
98	 United States Social Security Administration (2016). Actuarial life
table. Washington, DC: Social Security Administration. Available
online: www.ssa.gov/oact/STATS/table4c6.html.
99	 Patterson, E.J. (2010). Incarcerating death: Mortality in U.S. state
correctional facilities: 1985-1998. Demography, 47(3), 587-607.

36 The Sentencing Project

Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of
Life and Long-Term Sentences
Ashley Nellis, Ph.D.
May 2017

Related publications by The Sentencing Project:
•	
•	
•	

1705 DeSales Street NW, 8th Floor
Washington, D.C. 20036
Tel: 202.628.0871
Fax: 202.628.1091
sentencingproject.org

Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America (2013)
The Lives of Juvenile Lifers: Findings from a National Survey (2012)
No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America (2009)

The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. justice system by
promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and
practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.

 

 

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