A record number of “lifers” are now crowding American prison cells. The number of convicted felons serving life sentences has jumped to 127,000 nationwide, an 83 percent rise since 1992, says the Christian Science Monitor. More than a quarter of them are ineligible for parole.
The increase is largely a result of the a get-tough era of recent decades in which an expansion of mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes, and truth-in-sentencing laws lengthened prison sentences and limited parole options. The average lifer now spends 37 percent more time in prison than a decade ago, up from 21 years to 29 years. The findings are from a study of “lifers” conducted by the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform think tank. “These sentences are having a very significant impact on the size and costs of incarceration,” says Marc Mauer, one of the report’s authors. “Every time a judge makes a determination to sentence a person to life, conservatively speaking it will cost $1 million to keep them locked up for life.”
Supporters of “get-tough” policies credit the fact that so many more felons are locked up life with helping to bring the crime rate down, “What we’re seeing is the high crime rates we suffered starting in the 1960s caused public policymakers to finally realize one contribution they could make toward restoring law and order is to increase the number of serious and violent offenders in prison and also to increase the sentences which they serve,” says Dave Muhlhausen of the Heritage Foundation. “It’s worked.”
Critics contend that their inflexibility has crowded the country’s prisons with juveniles, indigents, battered women, and mentally ill inmates. The study estimates that 23,500 “lifers” suffer from mental illness.
“Given the budget crisis it’s a challenge to get the resources,” says Joe Weedon of the American Correctional Association. “You have to reexamine everything that you’re doing to find the money to fund the healthcare in particular, which is the fastest growing expenditure within a facility.”