New Study Reports Growing Population of Americans Sentenced to Life in Prison


A new report from The Sentencing Project shows that, while serious crime rates in the United States have been declining for 20 years, the number of people sentenced to life imprisonment has more than quadrupled since 1984.

One in nine incarcerated people in America (159,000 people) is serving a life sentence, and nearly a third (50,000 people) are sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. In fact, the population of prisoners serving life without parole has risen more sharply than those with the possibility of parole: there has been a 22.2% increase in life-without-parole sentences since 2008.

Approximately 10,000 of those serving life sentences have been convicted of nonviolent offenses, and more than 10,000 have been convicted of crimes that occurred before they turned 18. Nearly a quarter of the juveniles are sentenced to life without parole.

Almost half of those with life sentences are African American and 1 in 6 are Latino.

Rarely used for most of the 20th century, life sentences surged as a part of “tough on crime” policies that became popular in the 1980s, the report explains. A growing fear of crime stoked by sensationalized media accounts of repeat offenders and racialized prophecies about a violent crime wave by minority youth led to widespread rejection of rehabilitation as a goal of imprisonment and acceptance of death-in-prison sentences. Six states – Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota – and the federal government eliminated parole entirely during this period; in these states all life-sentenced inmates spend the remainder of their lives in prison with no possibility for review or release.

The problem with these policies is that the youth crime wave never happened; violent crime actually has declined nationwide; and the rapidly escalating costs of mass incarceration are driving policymakers to reevaluate sentencing laws and implement reforms that are beginning to reduce the prison population in many states. Research shows lengthy sentences do nothing to improve public safety, and elderly inmates require extremely expensive medical care, but life sentences continue to be largely excluded from the sentencing reform discussion.

EJI is engaged in litigation and other reform efforts aimed at reducing excessive punishment and mass incarceration.