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1 in 9 American prisoners has been sentenced to die in jail.

A new report out today from the Sentencing Project reveals that while America's overall prison population is declining, the number of offenders serving life sentences increased 11 percent between 2008 and 2012; the number of people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole increased 22.2 percent in the same time period.

All told, 159,520 offenders are serving life sentences in America, 49,081 of them without the possibility of parole. 

To put those numbers in perspective: More people are serving life sentences in America than are serving sentences of any length in the prisons of the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Germany, or Cuba; and more people are serving life sentences without possibility of parole than are serving sentences of any length in Venezuela or Saudi Arabia. In fact, the entire list of countries with prison populations smaller than the U.S. population of lifers is roughly 215 countries long.

Another way to put life sentences in context: 1 in 9 American prisoners has been deemed unfit to taste free air ever again. 

And these aren't just murderers we're talking about. Roughly four percent of offenders serving life sentences--5,416 people--are being punished for property crimes; two percent--2,686 people--are doing life sentences for drug crimes. Even among the homicides, there are offenders who shouldn't spend the rest of their lives behind bars. Like Sara Cruzan, "a sex trafficking victim sentenced to life without parole for a crime committed as a teenager." The Sentencing Project writes that:

Ms. Kruzan had been forced into prostitution at the age of 13 by a man 20 years her senior. At 16, after years of rape and abuse by him and others, she snapped and killed her pimp. Despite a recommendation by the California Youth Authority to handle Ms. Kruzan in juvenile court because of her amenability to treatment, the prosecutor and judge agreed she was competent to stand trial in adult court, where life sentences without the possibility of parole are the default sentence for homicide convictions. Ms. Kruzan served nearly 15 years in an adult prison while her legal team worked tirelessly for a review of her sentence and an opportunity for release. After gathering 60,000 signatures for a national petition and mounting a media and public education campaign, California Governor Schwarzenegger commuted her sentence in 2012 and in  June 2013, Ms. Kruzan was released.
Kruzan, though she spent 15 years in prison, was nevertheless lucky. Even though the "tough on crime" era is arguably drawing to a close, men like Larry Yarbrough, a 63-year-old Oklahoma restaurant owner who sold three joints and an ounce of coke, and Clarence Aaron, a go-between for a couple of drug-dealing friends, are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. More than 2,000 other nonviolent drug offenders are experiencing similar fates thanks to three strikes laws and mandatory minimums. 
Which brings us to our next worrying factoid: A plurality of offenders serving life sentences are black:
Nationally, almost half (47.2 percent) of life-sentenced inmates are African American, though the black population of lifers reaches much higher in states such as Maryland (77.4 percent), Georgia (72.0 percent), and Mississippi (71.5 percent). In the federal system, 62.3 percent of the life-sentenced population is African American. Non-whites constitute nearly two-thirds of the total population serving life sentences.
What led to the massive spike in life sentences? Mainly, "habitual offender" laws intended to permanently incarcerate people after a certain number of convictions. California's law provides us with the most egregious example:
While the law was passed with the promise that it would take persons convicted of serious and violent offenses off the streets, in reality fewer than half of the individuals sentenced under the law had been convicted of a violent offense as their third strike. Fifty-five percent were convicted of a nonviolent offense, including 16 percent for a drug offense and 30 percent for a property crime. Passage of Proposition 36 in 2012 changed the law by narrowing the scope of eligible offenses. Because reform to the law applies retroactively, as many as 3,000 prisoners serving life sentences qualify to be resentenced.

Yet the Sentencing Project's report notes that California isn't the only jurisdiction locking up offenders for repeat crimes: "Life without parole is a mandatory sentence upon conviction under three strikes laws in 13 states and the federal government."

This is an opportune time to reform life sentences and revive the debate over parole and clemency. At the state level, groups like Pew, the ACLU, Right on Crime, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums are leading a successful prison reform movement to reduce the prison population, sentence lengths, and the amount states spend on incarceration. Many of the Sentencing Project's suggested reforms--expanding educational opportunities for lifers, restoring parole at the federal level and in states that don't have it--are pretty reasonable. Here's hoping that they'll make their way into the broader discussion over prison reform. 

Top image: WilleeCole /Shutterstock.com

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