According to a new study by the Sentencing Project, more than two-thirds of those serving life in prison are people of color, 30 percent are at least 55 years old, and over 203,000 people are serving life sentences in prison, more than the country’s entire prison population in 1970, reports the Washington Post. Findings show that the number of women serving life sentences without parole increased 43 percent from 2008 to 2020 and the number of men serving such sentences went up 29 percent during that period; the number of inmates serving life who are 55 and older, which was more than 61,000 as of last year, has tripled since 2000. Of those people, 675 were sentenced for crimes they committed as juveniles and have served an average of 37 years. In Georgia, 45 lifers were 13 or 14 years old at the time of their crimes. Recent Supreme Court rulings banning mandatory life sentences for juveniles have resulted in many re-sentencings and a 38 percent decline in teen offenders serving life without parole since 2016; and the United States holds about 40 percent of the world’s life-sentenced population. About 15 percent of the entire U.S. prison population of 1.4 million is serving a life sentence.
The Sentencing Project recommends that states and the federal government implement a 20-year maximum prison term except in rare circumstances. It cites the racially disproportionate issuance of life sentences, the cost of incarcerating older prisoners, the lack of a deterrent effect and studies that show a very small likelihood that a prisoner will reoffend after serving a significant term. Reformers have also targeted “three strikes” laws, which mandate life sentences for a third felony conviction, and some prosecutors have said they will not use such enhancements, in part because of racial disparities in how they have been applied. In North Carolina, 81 percent of those sentenced as habitual offenders are Black, the study found. In Mississippi, 75 percent of those serving life without parole for being a habitual offender are Black, and two-thirds of the cases did not involve homicides. The study also notes that 173 people originally given death sentences were later exonerated through the intense scrutiny that capital cases typically receive, raising questions about the number of life sentences that might have resulted from wrongful convictions.