Prison Lifer Numbers Now Exceed 1970 Incarcerated Population: Report

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The number of people serving life in prison exceeds the entire prison population of 1970, according to a new report published by The Sentencing Project.

Currently, one of every seven people in U.S. prisons is serving a life sentence — a record high for America, the report says. In 1984, the number of people serving life sentences was 34,000.

Researchers found that African Americans and Latinos represent two-thirds of those currently serving life sentences across the country.

In 2016 alone, America had 206,000 people serving life sentences, according to the Campaign to End Life Imprisonment, a branch of  The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for sentencing reform and racial equality in the criminal justice system. 

In 1970, the total prison population was 197,245.

Researchers collected information from state departments of corrections regarding the number of people serving life sentences at four distinct points in time: 2003, 2009, 2012, and 2016. The numbers were then compared and displayed on visual charts. 

The largest number of inmates serving life sentences are housed in the South and the West. However, the researchers note a slight increase in life sentences in all 50 states. 

Nevada’s and Utah’s current life-sentenced populations, “are more than four times each state’s entire prison population in 1970,” the researchers found.

“The next two most dramatic shifts are in Louisiana and Alaska where their life-sentenced populations are more than double their overall prison populations in 1970.”

New York State’s numbers are slightly different, but they still reflect an increase in the overall prison population. For New York, the total prison population in 1970 was 12,059, whereas the number of prisoners in 2016 sentenced to life without the possibility of parole alone was 9,889.

Moreover, “nearly 12,000 people were sentenced to life for crimes committed as a minor.”

The Sentencing Project said the number made clear that a reexamination of life sentences was required in order that “public safety can be paired with fairness.” 

According to the researchers, the majority of individuals serving life sentences, including individuals in prison for murder, “will not forever present a risk to public safety.”

Even what many criminologists dub as “chronic-offenders,” or individuals who repeatedly commit crimes, they “gradually desist from criminal conduct so that their public safety risk is substantially reduced by their late 30s or 40s.” 

“Therefore,” the Sentencing Project writes, “from a public safety perspective, life imprisonment is an unwise investment.” 

Instead, the Sentencing Project recommends capping criminal sentences to 20 years in prison so that the money typically used to house inmates for extended periods of time can be used instead for crime prevention and social intervention programs.

The full study can be accessed here

Additional Reading: Can the US Abolish Life Sentences? January 22, 2019.

This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano

One thought on “Prison Lifer Numbers Now Exceed 1970 Incarcerated Population: Report

  1. This same statistic (“The number of people serving life in prison exceeds the entire prison population of 1970”) was first published in “The End of Policing” by Alex S. Vitale, published in 2017 by Verso.

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