Scary Findings

New Sentencing Project Report Reveals Scary Increase in Life Sentences

The number of convicts serving life sentences is up by 12 percent, lifers without parole up by 22.2 percent, 10,000 lifers convicted as juveniles—the troubling reality of America’s prisons is laid bare in a new survey.

09.19.13 9:45 AM ET

American prisoners are serving the longest jail stints in the nation’s history.

Since 2008, according to a new report from the Sentencing Project, a prison reform advocacy and research organization, the number of convicted criminals serving life sentences has increased by nearly 12 percent, and convicts serving life sentences without the option of parole by 22.2 percent.

One in every nine prisoners is serving a life sentence, with or without the option of parole, and four times as many convicts are serving life sentences today as in 1984.

Those numbers spell serious trouble for our prisons, not to mention our national moral compass, says Ashley Nellis, the author of the report and a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project.

Prisoners get more expensive as they age, Nellis says, so taxpayers will have to shoulder the cost of a growing population of convicts who will grow old behind bars.

And sentencing more convicts than ever to die in prison means we’re turning our backs on the possibility of redemption, Nellis says. “We’re a society that believes in second chances,” she says. “That is fundamental to the American perspective.”

Culling data from corrections officials state by state, the report found 110,439 prisoners serving life sentences and 49,081 serving life without parole, meaning 159,520 people are serving out the rest of their days in American prisons.

The report reveals some disturbing trends in the current lifer prison population, Nellis says. Mirroring the general prison population, lifers are disproportionately minorities: nearly one half of the lifer population is black; one in six is Latino.

Juvenile offenders also represent a significant portion of lifers. Ten thousand people are serving life sentences for offenses they committed before they turned 18.

One in four of those lifers has been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole—a sentence the June 2012 Supreme Court ruling Miller v. Alabama outlawed, although it is unclear how many juvenile offenders serving life without parole will have their cases reconsidered retroactively.

Even before the Miller ruling, questions about the possibility of life sentences for juvenile offenders multiplied. The case of Cristian Fernandez, who was 12 when he faced a sentence of life without parole after being accused of killing his half-brother, attracted international attention and sympathy for Fernandez. His lawyers eventually reached a plea deal, and now he is serving a six-year prison sentence.

Until Miller, the United States was the only country that allowed life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders.

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Nellis says the juvenile offenders who don’t make the news are of equal concern. Convicted juveniles with the option of parole are generally “at the back of the parole line” and must wait years for a review, she says.

And not all prison lifers, whether they’re 13 or 65, have committed a homicide or even violent crimes, the report found.

“There’s a natural assumption that when we’re talking about the population of convicts serving life sentences, we’re referring to the worst of the worst, the Ariel Castros,” Nellis says. But 10,000 lifers have committed nonviolent offenses, predominantly drug- and property-related offenses, the report found.

About half of the prisoners serving life sentences with the option of parole have been convicted of a homicide, and about 80 percent of people serving life without parole are convicted murderers. But that means a significant portion of the lifer population is behind bars for a non-homicide, Nellis points out.

In Idaho, 54 percent of the prisoners serving life without parole were convicted of a non-homicide.

“There are certainly people who should remain in prison for their entire lives,” Nellis says. “But we think that everyone at least deserves a second look. The problem with this group is they’re never given the chance to show that they deserve it.”

Correction: A previous version of this article cited an incorrect figure for the total number of prisoners serving life sentences. The correct number is 159,520.