Number of Prisoners Serving Life Rises Nationally

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A new report from The Sentencing Project reveals that the number of inmates serving life in prison, or sentences of 50 years or more, makes up 15 percent of today’s national prison population, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Since conducting its first national census of people serving life sentences in prisons in all 50 states and the U.S Bureau of Prisons in 2003, The Sentencing Project found that the number has increased by 66 percent overall. One in seven prison inmates in the U.S. are serving life, life without parole, or a virtual life sentence, while one in five Black men in prison are serving life terms, and Hispanics make up 16 percent of all those serving life. The increase in life sentences, according to the report, is a result of changes in the law that toughened sentencing and limited parole, starting with the so-called war on drugs in the 1980s.

Two states with the largest increases in people serving life from 1970 to 2020 were Utah at 458 percent and Nevada at 415 percent. The two states with the least were New Jersey, with a 30 percent increase, and Maine, with a 24 percent increase. The number of Virginia inmates serving life has increased 90 percent from 1970 to 2020. The study found that most inmates serving life terms committed violent crimes, with 57 percent convicted of murder and 19 percent of a sex-related crime. Nationally, almost 4,000 people are serving life terms for drug crimes, 38 percent of whom are being held in the federal system. The report advises abolishing life without parole sentences, “which is virtually unheard of in the rest of the world,” and imposing a 20-year cap on prison sentences except in rare circumstances.

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