Rising Number of Life Sentences Called ‘Wasteful and Inhumane’

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Despite declining crime rates, life sentences in the U.S. continue to rise, according to The Sentencing Project. 

The study authors found the number of people serving life sentences – including life without the possibility of parole ( 53,290), life with the possibility of parole (108,667), and “virtual” life sentences of 50 years or more (44,311) are at an all-time high.

“This is both wasteful and inhumane,” said The Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC nonprofit that promote criminal justice reform, in a fact sheet accompanying the launch of a national campaign to end life imprisonment.

“The overwhelming majority of individuals who commit crime—even serious crime—will “age out” of criminal behavior, and their continued incarceration diminishes returns on public safety,” The Sentencing Project added.

The  national campaign launched Tuesday calls for capping sentences at 20 years, and investment in “community building to prevent crime.”

The campaign is also tied to the recently released book, “The Meaning of Life,” by Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project,  and Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst.

According to the fact sheet that accompanied the launch of the campaign, although most life sentences are reserved for those who have committed serious and often violent crimes, over 17,000 individuals serving life have been convicted of a nonviolent offense, including 5,000 convicted of a drug offense, the study found.

And, 59 percent of lifers are serving sentences for homicide, 17 percent for rape or sexual assault, and 15 percent for aggravated assault, robbery, or kidnapping.

Significantly, while people of color are over-represented in prisons and jails, this disparity is even more evident among those sentenced to life imprisonment, where one of every five African American prisoners is serving a life sentence.

The number of women and juveniles  serving life sentences is also alarming, the study said.

Over 6,000 women are serving life or virtual life sentences. The number of women serving life sentences has risen at a faster rate than for men in recent years, according to the study.

More than 7,000 juveniles are serving sentences of life with parole, and another 2,000 are serving “virtual life” prison terms of 50 years or more.

A full copy of the report can be found here.

Megan Hadley is senior staff writer for The Crime Report.

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