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Number of US Prison Inmates Serving Life Sentences Hits New Record

A report released by The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit criminal justice advocacy group, reveals that the number of prisoners serving life sentences in the US state and federal prisons reached a new record of close to 160,000 in 2012. Of these, 49,000 are serving life without possibility of parole, an increase of 22.2 percent since 2008.

The study’s findings place in relief figures being promoted by the federal government indicating a reduction in the overall number of prisoners in federal and state facilities, from 1.62 million to 1.57 million between 2009 and 2012.

Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst with the Sentencing Project, argues that the rise in prisoners serving life sentences has to do with political posturing over “tough on crime” measures. “Unfortunately, lifers are typically excluded from most sentencing reform conversations because there’s this sense that it’s not going to sell, politically or with the public,” Nellis says. “Legislators are saying, ‘We have to throw somebody under the bus.’”

At 40,362 California holds a quarter of lifers, followed by Florida (12,549) and New York (10,245), Texas (9,031), Georgia (7,938), Ohio (6,075), Michigan (5,137), Pennsylvania (5,104) and Louisiana (4,657).


David Krajicek, “Hard Time: Prisons Are Packed With More Lifers Than Ever,”,, September 18, 2013,

Ashley Nellis, “Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America,” The Sentencing Project, September 2013, Goes On 2013.pdf.

Student Researcher: Isabella Diaz (Florida Atlantic University)

Faculty Evaluator: James F. Tracy (Florida Atlantic University)

  • Authorized53 January 26, 2014

    Why are there so many lifers? You suggest the reason is political not criminal. Perhaps an increase in executions improve the numbers?

  • Steven Slater January 26, 2014

    Reasons to advocate For national amnesty For all non violent political pot prisoners …Makes room for all of the lifers Clemency Would be a positive Acknowledgement That The Marijuana laws Are wrong & unfair

  • B. Henschel January 27, 2014

    AS a former California Criminal defense attorney let me share this story of an innocent person going to prison and the guilty person given immunity. I represented a 19 year old man who went to a party with some U.S. Navy buddies of his. There was a shooting which the witnesses testified my client was standing in the yard, next to others. My client had a shaved head but his good friend who testified against him had hair on top of his head in the exact style as witnesses said was worn by the shooter. No one was hit, injured or killed. The Sheriff in this case lied to my client that if he confessed it would help him. So my client confessed to facts directed and dictated to him by the Sheriff [who was later promoted as a result and earned more money]. After conviction I asked the Jury about the reasonable doubt by the majority of the testimony that my client had shaved head and no hair, was standing next to others away from the place of the shooter, and had no gun on him. They told me they couldn’t get past the confession. The people of Calif will be paying $40K a year for 53 years. Meanwhile the so-called friend, who was the actual shooter, got no time in prison and might, if he has a conscience come forward after the statute of limitations expires. Also the DA overcharged a simply assault or shooting at occupied vehicle charge to attempted murder X 4 people in the car. No government official in that trial gave a damn that they were letting the guilty shooter free and put an innocent man in prison. I can guarantee you that about 25%-35% of all such cases result in the innocent going to prison and the guilty not being punished as found by the Innocent projects who have found absolute proof of innocents using DNA tests in that percentage of cases where the innocent were proven factually innocent and sometimes released from prison. California is in a war on it’s citizens and the US Supreme court has affirmed our prisons constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Which California officials admitted in federal court in signed documents. AT one point a prisoner a month was dying due to lack of medical care and still no hospital facility for state prisoners has been built. The population in California prisons is largely old men who can barely get around but are being kept in prison due to the prison guard union officials. Also the Prison Guard Union filed AMICUS briefs against the STate of CALIF and supporting the prisoner’s contentions of cruel and unusual treatment, that is how bad it is. Consider this treatment when statistics show 1/4 to 1/3 of them are innocent. That’s a lot of Karma and a shameful situation.

  • jaejae January 29, 2014

    These prisons need prisoners to spend as much time in prison as possible so that the investments into these prisons can be subsidized by the government. All California prisons are packed with people doing petty crimes and getting life sentences. The longer they keep u in prison, the more money people who invest in these private prisons make a profit. Its a shame that a meaningless bag of weed will get an innocent boy 2 years and by that time he is already use to crime life (which he is taught all this in prison) its so sad. YOU CALL THIS THE LAND OF THE FREE? ha! whatever!

  • grant April 1, 2014

    This is just unbelievable, in the UK there are 47 people with a whole life term,US justice sometimes makes sharia law look liberal

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