The Meaning Of “Life”: Long Prison Sentences in Context

Almost 10 percent of all inmates in U.S. state and federal prisons are serving life sentences, an increase of 83 percent from 1992, according to this report from Open Society grantee The Sentencing Project.

The study assesses the state of life imprisonment in the United States by analyzing sentencing policies, profiling the population of prisoners serving life sentences, and contextualizing the issue from public safety and fiscal perspectives. It also features profiles of current lifers whose individual stories reflect a system in desperate need of revision.

The following are among the study's findings:

  • One of every 11 (9.4 percent) offenders in state/federal prison—127,677 persons—is now serving a life sentence.
  • Of the lifers in prison, one in four (26.3 percent) is serving a sentence of life without parole, having increased from one in six (17.8 percent) in 1992.
  • The number of lifers in prison rose by 83 percent from 69,845 in 1992 to 127,677 in 2003.
  • Time to be served for lifers admitted to prison increased by 37 percent from 1991 to 1997, rising from 21.2 years to 29 years.
  • In six states—Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota—all life sentences are imposed without the possibility of parole.
  • Seven states—Alabama, California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—have more than 1,000 prisoners each serving sentences of life without parole.
  • The increase in prison time for lifers is a result of changes in state policy and not continuous increases in violent crime.
  • Four of every five (79.4 percent) lifers released in 1994 had no arrests for a new crime in the three years after their release. This compares to an arrest-free rate of just one-third (32.5 percent) for all offenders released from prison.
  • Imposing a life sentence carries with it a potential cost to taxpayers of $1 million.