By Ashley Nellis - The Sentencing Project,
Before America’s era of mass incarceration took hold in the early 1970s, the number of individuals in prison was less than 200,000. Today, it’s 1.4 million; and more than 200,000 people are serving life sentences – one out of every seven in prison. More people are sentenced to life in prison in America than there were people in prison serving any sentence in 1970.
Nearly five times the number of people are now serving life sentences in the United States as were in 1984, a rate of growth that has outpaced even the sharp expansion of the overall prison population during this period.
The now commonplace use of life imprisonment contradicts research on effective public safety strategies, exacerbates already extreme racial injustices in the criminal justice system, and exemplifies the egregious consequences of mass incarceration.
In 2020, The Sentencing Project obtained official corrections data from all states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to produce our 5th national census on life imprisonment.
- One in 7 people in U.S. prisons is serving a life sentence, either life without parole (LWOP), life with parole (LWP) or virtual life (50 years or more), totaling 203,865 people;
- The number of people serving life without parole — the most extreme type of life sentence — is higher than ever before, a 66% increase since our first census in 2003;
- 29 states had more people serving life in 2020 than just four years earlier;
- 30% of lifers are 55 years old or more, amounting to more than 61,417 people;
- 3,972 people serving life sentences have been convicted for a drug-related offense and 38% of these are in the federal prison system;
- More than two-thirds of those serving life sentences are people of color;
- One in 5 Black men in prison is serving a life sentence;
- Latinx individuals comprise 16% of those serving life sentences;
- One of every 15 women in prison is serving life;
- Women serving LWOP increased 43%, compared to a 29% increase among men, between 2008 and 2020;
- The population serving LWOP for crimes committed as youth is down 45% from its peak in 2016;
- 8,600 people nationwide are serving parole-eligible life or virtual life sentences for crimes committed as minors