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May 4, 2017

The Sentencing Project reports on "America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences"

The Sentencing Project yesterday released this significant new report titled "Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences." Here is its introduction:

The number of people serving life sentences in U.S. prisons is at an all-time high. Nearly 162,000 people are serving a life sentence -- one of every nine people in prison.  An additional 44,311 individuals are serving “virtual life” sentences of 50 years or more. Incorporating this category of life sentence, the total population serving a life or virtual life sentence reached 206,268 in 2016.  This represents 13.9 percent of the prison population, or one of every seven people behind bars. A mix of factors has led to the broad use of life sentences in the United States, placing it in stark contrast to practices in other nations.

Every state and the federal government allow prison sentences that are so long that death in prison is presumed.  This report provides a comprehensive profile of those living in this deep end of the justice system. Our analysis provides current figures on people serving life with parole (LWP) and life without parole (LWOP) as well as a category of long-term prisoner that has not previously been quantified: those serving “virtual” or de facto life sentences.  Even though virtual life sentences can extend beyond the typical lifespan, because the sentences are not legally considered life sentences, traditional counts of life-sentenced prisoners have excluded them until now.


• As of 2016, there were 161,957 people serving life sentences, or one of every nine people in prison.

• An additional 44,311 individuals are serving “virtual life” sentences, yielding a total population of life and virtual life sentences at 206,268 – or one of every seven people in prison.

• The pool of people serving life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984.The increase in the LWOP population has far outpaced the changes in the LWP population.

• There are 44,311 people serving prison sentences that are 50 years or longer. In Indiana, Louisiana, and Montana, more than 11 percent of the prison population is serving a de facto life sentence.

• Nearly half (48.3%) of life and virtual life-sentenced individuals are African American, equal to one in five black prisoners overall.

• Nearly 12,000 people have been sentenced to life or virtual life for crimes committed as juveniles; of these over 2,300 were sentenced to life without parole.

• More than 17,000 individuals with an LWP, LWOP, or virtual life sentence have been convicted of nonviolent crimes.

• The United States incarcerates people for life at a rate of 50 per 100,000, roughly equivalent to the entire incarceration rates of the Scandinavian nations of Denmark, Finland, and Sweden.

May 4, 2017 at 09:57 AM | Permalink


The really sad thing is that so few care. Americans do far more harm and practice such appalling abuse to their own, through the prevailing systems of "justice", than ever their world "enemies" threaten or inflict.

Posted by: peter | May 4, 2017 3:01:10 PM

Peter is right. No one cares. Also consider that American sentences are far harsher than those of other Western countries. Why? Some thoughts:

1. Puritan ethic--folks deserve to suffer for their sins. If you are poor, it's because you didn't work hard enough; if your sick, it's because you masturbated too much; if you committed crime you chose to do so and must suffer the penalty.

2. State prosecutors, judges, and, of course, politicians of every stripe are elected. Longer sentences mean more headlines, more glory, less chance of being perceived as soft on crime and being defeated next election.

3. Prison builders, guards, parole officers, prosecutors, all lobby for longer sentences to justify and safeguard their employment.

4. Prisoners have no lobby, no leverage. They are the civilly dead. The zombies of our society.

The only counter weight here is that increased incarceration is busting the budgets of many states. This , in some cases, has lessened the length of some of the sentences in some of the states.

Other thoughts welcomed.

Posted by: James the Just | May 4, 2017 3:48:37 PM


5) "The thought (which I subscribe to) is that those who choose to commit crimes deserve to be discarded. Were it up to me a felony conviction would result in a presumptive death sentence with it then up to the offender to prove (most likely by a clear and convincing evidence standard) that they individually deserve less.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 5, 2017 12:02:45 AM

Mr. Haetir, about 20 million people have a felony conviction in America. That works out to about 1 in 12 adult Americans. Are you suggesting that 20 million folks be put to death? If so, you would even top Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot. Perhaps you should rethink your philosophy of punishment.

Posted by: Emily | May 5, 2017 8:42:46 AM


Actually, given that I believe that even the theft of a couple hundred dollars deserves execution I would say that the 20 million figure is low. I am not a nice man, I try to be polite but nice is right out the door.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 5, 2017 9:27:01 AM

Emily. Calm down. It is poor commenting form to regress in accordance with Godwin's Law.

The death penalty is an excellent form of incapacitation, since the deceased have no recidivism. As with all remedies, there is a dose response curve, too little not working, too much being toxic. So the strongest poison, when diluted, has 700 medical benefits. And water to excess causes seizures and death. I estimated 10,000 executions a year was a good number. It was still lower than the murder number. That number is artificially lowered by the advances in trauma care learned on the battlefield.

I now believe the death penalty should be abolished, and that the death penalty appellate racket should be ended, including the firing of many federal judges.

The reasoning is briefly reviewed here.


Posted by: David Behar | May 6, 2017 1:03:43 PM

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