More than 202,000 men and women are now serving dead-end sentences in U.S. prisons, according to an analysis released Wednesday by The Sentencing Project.
The report, Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences, says one in seven prisoners is locked up under three sentences that offer only the faintest hope of parole: life in prison, life without parole, or a de facto life term of 50 years or more.
Report author Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, said U.S. prisons in 2016 held 108,667 people on sentences of life with possibility of parole, 53,290 on sentences of life without parole, and 44,311 on sentences of at least 50 years.
“The increased prevalence of life sentences stands at odds with attempts to scale back mass incarceration,” the report says.
For nearly a decade, Nellis has been tracking the national trend toward ever-increasing extreme sentences. She says her latest report is the first to include a comprehensive profile of “virtual lifers,” described as “those living in the deep end of the justice system” for whom “death in prison is presumed.”
“There are mounting concerns about the extent to which people are sentenced to lifelong prison terms who aren’t ‘technically’ lifers but are unlikely to survive their maximum sentence,” she told The Crime Report. “From a budget as well as a moral and public safety perspective, there are real issues with these lengthy terms in prison.”
The 161,957 prisoners serving life with or without parole in 2016 was an all-time high, up slightly from Nellis’ count of 159,520 in 2012. Lifer populations have continued to increase even as overall numbers of inmates have declined over the past decade.
Other key findings:
- More than 17,000 prisoners serving life, life without parole or virtual life sentences have been convicted of nonviolent crimes.
- Nearly half (48.3%) of life and virtual life prisoners are African American, or about one in five black prisoners overall.
- Virtual life sentences are handed down most frequently in Alaska, Indiana, Louisiana, Montana and New Mexico, where the rate of those serving de facto life range from 8.5 to 17.4 percent of the state prison populations.
- Nearly 12,000 people have been sentenced to life or virtual life for crimes committed as juveniles. Of those, more than 2,300 were sentenced to life without parole.
- The number of prisoners serving life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984, and the increase in the life-without-parole population has been particularly acute.
Nellis found that more than 30 percent of state prisoners in California, Louisiana and Utah are serving terms of life, life without parole, or virtual life. The percentage is greater than 23 percent in three other states, Alabama, Massachusetts and Nevada.
On the other end of the spectrum, fewer than 7 percent of prisoners in Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon, Virginia and Wisconsin are serving those extreme sentences.
The national average last year was 13.9 percent. The federal prison system was well below that, with 3.5 percent serving extreme sentences.
Forms of super-punishment have become popular (and more palatable to some jurors) as enthusiasm for capital punishment has ebbed in many states.
In 1998, a total of 295 offenders were condemned to die. That number declined to 153 condemnations in 2001. The slide has continued ever since, to 85 death sentences in 2011 and just 30 in 2016.
At the same time, the number of lifers has mushroomed—34,000 in 1984, 70,000 in 1992, 128,000 in 2003, and 162,000 today. The boom in life-without-parolers began in the early ‘90s, just as the crime rate began its precipitous drop. Their numbers nearly tripled between 1992 and 2003, from 12,500 to about 34,000.
Nellis’ report suggests three reforms to turn the tide of extreme sentences:
- Eliminate life without parole and dramatically scale back other life sentences.
- Streamline the parole process, which is now stacked against prisoners through politicization.
- Employ broader use of clemency at the state level to reward prisoners who prove themselves rehabilitated.
Most close observers agree that there is no political imperative for retroactive relief for hard-timers, even though it is a key toward reducing mass incarceration. These offenders have been warehoused in prisons for so long that we no longer recognize their potential for rehabilitation, experts say.
As Ryan King, an Urban Institute senior fellow who tracks sentencing trends, once told me, “We’re pushing this population to the margins and ignoring them, even though long sentences are not giving us a good return on investment.”
I asked Nellis if it is possible to bend the spiking trend of super-punishment given the leery stance that most politicians take toward lifers.
She said she is encouraged by state-level sentencing reforms, despite the Trump administration’s apparent determination to return criminal justice to a bygone punitive era.
“It is difficult to convince the public and policymakers that those who commit crimes–especially serious crime–can and do reform their lives with time, but that is the reality we see when lifers are released,” she told me. “Most go on to live crime-free, productive lives, having learned and outgrown the mistakes of their past.”
She continued, “As a society, we cannot challenge mass incarceration without including reforms to sentences on the deep end of the punishment spectrum, and including in reforms those who have committed serious crimes in their past and are serving life…Lifelong imprisonment for people who are no longer dangerous is a waste of limited resources.”
David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) is a contributing editor with The Crime Report.