If Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev gets a life without parole term, which a federal jury is now deliberating in Boston, he will be among about 50,000 prisoners in the U.S. with such a sentence, says a 2013 report by the Sentencing Project. The alternative is death, and there is some evidence that, as states turn more to life without parole, it is partly from a humane desire to move away from the ultimate punishment, says the Christian Science Monitor. The number of people sentenced to death in the U.S. has declined from 3,600 to 3,000 since 2000, says the Death Penalty Information Center.
The rapid expansion of life without parole also reflects the array of laws, spawned by the get-tough-on-crime 1980s and 1990s, that remain on the books and mandate such sentences. At least 3,000 people sentenced to life without parole were convicted of nonviolent offenses, says the American Civil Liberties Union. Some states are reconsidering mandatory minimum sentencing laws but most experts agree that so long as the death penalty exists, life without parole will continue to exist in its wake. “The death penalty operates to basically overshadow life in prison without parole,” says Marion Vannier, a criminologist at the University of Oxford in Britain researching a doctoral dissertation on life without parole in the U.S.