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Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America

NCJ Number
Ashley Nellis, Ph.D.
Date Published
34 pages

This report examines the increase in the use of life imprisonment in correctional facilities across the country.


This report, prepared by the Sentencing Project, examines the increase in the use of life imprisonment in U.S. correctional facilities. Key findings from the report include the following: as of 2012, 159,520 people were serving life sentences, an increase of 11.8 percent since 2008; 1 out of 9 individuals in prison is serving a life sentence; the population of prisoners serving life without parole (LWOP) has risen more sharply than those with the possibility of parole - an increase of 22.2 percent since just 2008; approximately 10,000 lifers have been convicted of nonviolent offenses; 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; and more than 5,300 (3.4 percent) of the life-sentenced inmates are female. As noted in this report, the use of life sentences has accelerated as part of the "tough on crime" political environment that began in the 1980s, even though crime rates and prison populations have declined significantly since 2000. The paper discusses the factors that have contributed to the increase in life sentences, especially in States that have "three strikes" laws. The final section of the paper includes a set of recommendations for reform the use of life sentences, such as eliminating sentences of life without parole, increasing the use of clemency, preparing persons sentenced to life for release from prison, and restoring the role of parole. Tables and appendixes