No End in Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment
The Sentencing Project
Feb 17, 2021

The Sentencing Project is pleased to share its newest report, No End in Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment by Senior Research Analyst Ashley Nellis, finding that one in seven people in prison — amounting to 203,865 individuals — is serving a sentence of life without parole, life with parole or a virtual life sentence of at least 50 years.

The report provides an in-depth analysis of the proliferation of life sentences, who is most affected by these extreme punishments, and offers bold proposals for changing course, particularly as the coronavirus disproportionately jeopardizes the lives of people in prison.

Research shows that as people mature, they age out of crime and present a diminishing risk to public safety. The report takes a first-ever look at older persons serving life, finding that 30% of them are age 55 or older. The elderly population poses a minor risk to  public safety, and in the COVID-19-era, public safety and public health are better served by releasing this population back to their families and communities.

Just as people of color are disproportionately policed and punished, they are also disproportionately represented among people serving life sentences. The report finds more than two-thirds of those serving life sentences are people of color. One in 5 Black men in prison today is serving a life sentence.

To end mass incarceration the country must take a second look at people who have committed acts of violence, including those who are serving life sentences. We can embrace redemption while delivering justice, reorient the way we deal with violent crime, and end extreme sentencing.

The Sentencing Project calls for the abolition of life-without-parole sentences and a 20-year cap on all life sentences.

Key findings include:

  • Life sentences in 2020 were five times their level in 1984 — the first nationwide count of people serving such sentences.
  • The number of women serving life sentences is outpacing the rise in the number of men serving life. Between 2008 and 2020, the number of women serving LWOP increased 43 percent, compared to a 29 percent increase among men.
  • People 55 and older account for 12 percent of state prison populations but a higher concentration of the life-sentenced population, 30 percent.
  • Over 10,000 people are serving a life sentence for a crime committed when they were less than 18-years-old. Important legal rulings have narrowed the allowable use of life imprisonment for juveniles facing life without parole, but much work remains on behalf of young people serving life with parole and virtual prison sentences of 50 years or more.
  • 3,972 people serving life sentences have been convicted for a drug-related offense and 38% of these are in the federal prison system.

Get the newsletter