Over the last several decades, the U.S. prison population has grown exponentially, particularly at the federal level. But it’s not just the the rate of incarceration that is outsized in the United States. It is also the duration of the sentences.
A new report by The Sentencing Project finds that one in every nine prisoners is serving a life sentence, and the number of such prisoners has more than quadrupled since 1984. Nearly a third of those serving life sentences will never have a chance at a parole hearing. This accounting doesn’t even include the countless others who have effective life sentences, either because they are sentenced to very long terms such as 120 years, or because they are sentenced later in life to terms that effectively mean death in prison.
The report includes a series of remarkable facts about the demographics of those serving life sentences:
- The population of prisoners serving life without parole (LWOP) has risen more sharply than those with the possibility of parole: there has been a 22.2% increase in LWOP since just 2008, an increase from 40,1745 individuals to 49,081.
- Approximately 10,000 lifers have been convicted of nonviolent offenses, including more than 2,500 for a drug offense and 5,400 for a property crime.
- Nearly half of lifers are African American and 1 in 6 are Latino.
- More than 10,000 life-sentenced inmates have been convicted of crimes that occurred before they turned 18 and nearly 1 in 4 of them were sentenced to LWOP.
While homicide remains the number one reason for life sentences, other offenses account for more than 35 percent received life sentences for other offenses. Crimes that can garner life sentences include assault, robbery, sex-related crimes, drug offenses, and some property offenses. The number of people in state prisons for a drug offense increased 550 percent over the past 20 years.
Among the causes of this spike are an increase in life sentences without the opportunity for parole during an era of “tough-on-crime” politics. In particular, “two-strikes” and “three-strikes” laws that doled out life sentences for second or third offenses, even when those later offenses were as minor as stealing socks, imposed a large number of life sentences. California’s law, which was considered the harshest of its kind, was repealed by ballot initiative in September. Since then, only two percent of those released were arrested for a new offense, and most were misdemeanors or other minor offenses. But other states like Washington still have three-strikes laws on the books, which accounts for two-thirds of that state’s life without parole inmates.
As in other areas of criminal punishment, America is an outlier in its imposition of life sentences without the possibility of parole. In the United Kingdom only 49 people are serving such sentences, as compared to 49,000 people in the United States. In fact, such UK sentences were recently ruled invalid by the European Court of Human Rights, and those 49 people will now be resentenced. In its ruling, the court pointed out that nine countries in Europe have no life terms at all, and the majority of others have “a dedicated mechanism for reviewing the sentence after the prisoner has served a certain minimum period fixed by law.”
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that life without parole sentences are unconstitutional for those were under 18 at the time of committing a crime other than homicide. As the report points out, “While the ruling is limited to juveniles, it raises anew the question of whether it is ever appropriate to sentence individuals to life with no possibility of release when their crime was not a homicide.” In a subsequent ruling, the Supreme Court held that even juveniles found guilty of homicide could not be subject to mandatory life without parole sentences. Judges may still choose to impose life without parole sentences in specific juvenile homicide cases, and many states are still considering whether the ruling applies retroactively, meaning the United States remains the only country in the world to impose LWOP punishment on youth.
The report comes as Congress, the Department of Justice and others consider rolling back harsh statutory minimum punishments that have filled federal prisons, acknowledging that harsh prison sentences do not equal improvements in public safety. In that vein, The Sentencing Project recommends eliminating life without parole sentences, and increased use of the executive power to shorten sentences through commutations — fixes that would purport with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent acknowledgment that “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”