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No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences In America

NCJ Number
Ashley Nellis; Ryan S. King
Date Published
July 2009
49 pages
This report reviews the life sentence in the United States and challenges the supposition that all life sentences are necessary to keep the public safe, and provides recommendations for changes in law, policy, and practice.
Every State has provisions for sentencing people to prison for the remainder of their lives for some types of crimes. While life and life without parole (LWOP) sentences have long been incorporated into sentencing policy, the frequency of their use has increased dramatically during the last 20 years as sentencing statues, prosecutorial practices, and parole policies have evolved in a more punitive direction. Every State today allows for life sentences for juveniles, and 46 States hold juveniles serving such terms. Trends in policymaking and practice have driven the life sentence population in each State's prison population, such as prosecutorial discretion, politicizing parole, three-strikes laws, transfer of juveniles to adult court, and the felony murder rule. The consequences of this trend in life sentences on society are many; the balancing of punishment and proportionality, recidivism and public safety, the cost of an aging prison population, and housing youth with adults. Recommendations presented in the reform of the increased trend in life sentences include: eliminate sentences of LWOP, prepare persons sentenced to life for release from prison, and restore the role of parole. Figures, tables, and appendixes