According to a new report by the Sentencing Project, there are now 206,268 life-sentenced prisoners in the United States, amounting to one in every seven inmates. As a result of a long-term national crime decline and years of effort in many states to divert nonviolent drug offenders from prison, the nation’s overall incarcerated population has been slowly dropping in recent years. However, the number of life-sentenced inmates has continued its seemingly inexorable increase.
The Sentencing Project has helpfully tracked life-sentence trends in a series of reports since 2004, but the new publication includes a valuable addition to the data: those inmates who do not formally have a life sentence, but whose prison terms are so long that they may be fairly characterized as life sentences anyway. The Sentencing Project defines these “virtual life” sentences as those involving prison terms of at least fifty years. Given an average age at arrest of thirty for violent offenders, and a life expectancy of forty-eight more years for American males of that age, the fifty-year cutoff seems reasonable. Using this criterion, the Sentencing Project counted 44,311 inmates with virtual life sentences (included in the 206,268 figure noted above).
Most of the life-sentenced inmates are at least theoretically parole-eligible.
The Sentencing Project counted 53,290 formal “life without the possibility of parole” (LWOP) sentences. Other life-sentenced inmates might earn parole at some point, but there is no indication of the number for whom that is a genuinely realistic possibility. For some, no doubt, parole cannot even be considered until some time beyond their life expectancy. For others, practices in their states are such that their parole hearings will be little more than a charade, with almost no chance for early release.
In part, this reflects the serious nature of the crimes for which they have been convicted. According to the Sentencing Project report, nearly sixty percent of the life-sentenced inmates have been convicted of a homicide offense. Most of the remainder have been convicted of other serious violent crimes. Although there are several thousand inmates serving life terms for drug and property offenses, these constitute only about six percent of the total.
While most of America’s life-sentenced inmates likely merit substantial prison terms, life sentences are rarely justified by public-safety concerns. Studies consistently find extremely low recidivism rates for prisoners released in their sixties and seventies. For instance, in New York, inmates released at age sixty-five or older were returned to prison with a new conviction only four percent of the time.
Even if not warranted by reference to public safety, some life sentences might nonetheless serve as the offender’s “just deserts,” at least in the homicide cases. Yet, even when a victim has died, there are often mitigating circumstances present. For instance, many of the life-sentenced homicide offenders were convicted of crimes falling short of first-degree murder. Moreover, nearly six percent of all life-sentenced inmates are serving time for juvenile offenses. And even among the adult first-degree murderers, there are doubtlessly many cases involving mental illness and other forms of diminished capacity, or that have a flavor of provocation, self-protection, or coercion — not enough, perhaps, to meet the formal legal requirements for a defense to liability, but still enough that some mitigation of the sentence might be justified.
When it comes to a fully deliberate choice to take human life, it does seem hard to categorically rule out the appropriateness of a life sentence. However, I am aware of no precise data on the frequency of these “worst of the worst” cases. Most likely, they represent only a small proportion of the now-swollen ranks of America’s life-sentenced inmates.