Posted on March 6, 2021

1 in 7 U.S. Prisoners Is Serving Life, and Two-Thirds of Those Are People of Color

Tom Jackman, Washington Post, March 2, 2021

In America, over 203,000 people are serving life sentences in prison, more than the country’s entire prison population in 1970. Of the lifers, 30 percent are at least 55 years old. And, according to a new study by the Sentencing Project, more than two-thirds of those serving life in prison are people of color.


As part of an effort to end mass incarceration in the American justice system and remedy decades of racial inequity, experts are focusing on the number of aging inmates essentially sentenced to die in prison. And the study by the Sentencing Project shows that, while the number of people incarcerated as juveniles or for nonviolent offenses has declined, the number sentenced to life in prison continues to make up a significant portion of the population behind bars, with an estimated cost of $1 million per inmate for those who spend 40 years in prison.

Among the findings:

⋅ The number of women serving life sentences without parole increased 43 percent from 2008 to 2020. The number of men serving such sentences went up 29 percent during that period.

⋅ The number of inmates serving life who are 55 and older, which was more than 61,000 as of last year, has tripled since 2000. Of those people, 675 were sentenced for crimes they committed as juveniles and have served an average of 37 years. In Georgia, 45 lifers were 13 or 14 years old at the time of their crimes. Recent Supreme Court rulings banning mandatory life sentences for juveniles have resulted in many re-sentencings and a 38 percent decline in teen offenders serving life without parole since 2016.

⋅ The United States holds about 40 percent of the world’s life-sentenced population. About 15 percent of the entire U.S. prison population of 1.4 million is serving a life sentence.


The Sentencing Project recommends that states and the federal government implement a 20-year maximum prison term except in rare circumstances. It cites the racially disproportionate issuance of life sentences, the cost of incarcerating older prisoners, the lack of a deterrent effect and studies that show a very small likelihood that a prisoner will reoffend after serving a significant term.


Some big-city prosecutors are launching “sentencing review units” and supporting motions to release people who have served decades, even those who admitted committing murder, in order to make a dent in mass incarceration and reduce the costs of medical care for prison systems. George Gascon, the newly elected district attorney of Los Angeles, told The Washington Post last year that at least 20,000 prisoners would immediately qualify to have their sentences reconsidered because they were serving overly harsh terms, were older and unlikely to reoffend, or because of coronavirus concerns.

Crime victims might be expected to oppose such amnesty and pardons for violent criminals, but victims groups have a more nuanced approach to punishment. “In our work,” said Renee Williams, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, “we have discovered that overwhelmingly survivors want to be part of the criminal justice reform conversation beyond punishment of their perpetrators and years spent in prison. {snip}”

But simply eliminating all life sentences is not necessarily the answer, either, Williams said, adding that decisions on releasing prisoners should be made on a case-by-case basis. “Limiting sentences to 20 years across the board seems like a drastic, and dangerous, step to address issues with life without parole,” she said. {snip}

Sentencing review advocates agree that victims should be involved in the discussions, but they also say the current parole system and means of seeking commutations or clemency are broken. They say many harsh sentences from the 1980s and 1990s would not be handed down by judges or juries today. Nearly 4,000 people are serving life terms for drug-related convictions, more than 60 percent of those in state prisons, the rest in federal. More than 16,000 people are doing life for robbery, and 5,000 received life sentences for kidnapping, the Sentencing Project study found.

Reformers have also targeted “three strikes” laws, which mandate life sentences for a third felony conviction, and some prosecutors have said they will not use such enhancements, in part because of racial disparities in how they have been applied. In North Carolina, 81 percent of those sentenced as habitual offenders are Black, the study found. In Mississippi, 75 percent of those serving life without parole for being a habitual offender are Black, and two-thirds of the cases did not involve homicides.