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New Study Finds Extreme Sentencing Increasing

-One in 7 people in prison is serving a life sentence
-One in 5 Black men in prison today is serving a life sentence
-Thirty percent of people serving life sentences are 55 or older

WASHINGTON - Today, The Sentencing Project released its quadrennial census of people in the United States sentenced to life behind bars. The report, No End in Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment, finds that one in seven people in prison amounting to 203,865 individuals is serving a sentence of life without parole, life with parole or a virtual life sentence of at least 50 years. The report also provides an in-depth analysis of the proliferation of life sentences over the past 35 years and describes who is most affected by these extreme punishments. The report offers bold proposals for changing course, particularly as the coronavirus disproportionately jeopardizes the lives of people in prison.

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

The report illuminates the backgrounds and experiences of the people behind bars for life in America. Just as people of color are disproportionately policed and punished, they are also disproportionately represented among people serving life sentences. According to the report, more than two-thirds of those serving life sentences are people of color. 

Recent legal rulings recognizing that juveniles are less culpable have dramatically narrowed the number of youth sentenced to extreme punishments, but more needs to be done. Over 10,000 people are still serving life for crimes committed when they were under 18-years-old. Another thirty percent of people serving life sentences are 55 or older even though they face grave health risks behind bars and pose a limited threat to public safety. 

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

The Sentencing Project calls for the abolition of life-without-parole sentences and a 20-year cap on all life sentences that allow parole. Doing so would help to reverse the tough-on-crime policies now debunked by years of social science. It would also help recalibrate all prison sentences downward, leading to substantial reductions in mass incarceration and producing a more humane, effective, just, and merciful system.

Other key findings include: 

  • Life sentences are five times their level in 1984, the first nationwide count of people serving such sentences. 
     
  • One in 5 Black men in prison today is serving a life sentence. Nationally, two-thirds of people serving life are people of color, with 46 percent Black and 16 percent Latinx. 
     
  • Between 2008 and 2020, the number of women serving LWOP increased 43 percent (compared to a 29 percent increase among men).
     
  • People 55 and older account for 12 percent of state prison populations but an even higher concentration of the lifer population (30 percent).
     
  • 3,972 people serving life sentences have been convicted for a drug-related offense and 38% of them are in the federal prison system.

No End in Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment is authored by Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., Senior Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project.

The full report is available here.

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The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by producing groundbreaking research to promote reforms in sentencing policy, address unjust racial disparities and practices, and to advocate for alternatives to incarceration.

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