23. Number of US Prison Inmates Serving Life Sentences Hits New Record

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

A report released by the Sentencing Project, a Washington DC–based nonprofit criminal justice advocacy group, revealed 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 striking context the figures promoted by the federal government, which indicate 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, argued 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 said. “Legislators are saying, ‘We have to throw somebody under the bus.’”

California is the leader in lifers, with one-quarter of the country’s life-sentenced population (40,362), 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).

There are currently 3,281 prisoners in the US serving a life sentence—with no chance of parole—for minor, nonviolent crimes, according to a November 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Louisiana, one of nine states where inmates currently serve life sentences for nonviolent crimes, has the nation’s strictest three-strike law, which states that after three offenses the guilty person is imprisoned for life without parole.

As Ed Pilkington reported in the Guardian, the ACLU study documented “thousands of lives ruined and families destroyed” by this practice. Among those is Timothy Jackson, now fifty-three, who in 1996 was caught stealing a jacket from a New Orleans department store. “It has been very hard for me,” Jackson wrote the ACLU. “I know that for my crime I had to do some time, but a life sentence for a jacket valued at $159.”

The ACLU study reported that keeping these prisoners locked up for life costs taxpayers around $1.8 billion annually. The study stated that the US is “virtually alone in its willingness to sentence non-violent offenders to die behind bars.” Life without parole for nonviolent sentences has been ruled a violation of human rights by the European Court of Human Rights.

With 2.3 million people imprisoned in the US today, Felicia Gustin of War Times has asked, is locking people away the answer to creating safer communities? She reported on the work of the Restorative Community Conferencing Program, based in Oakland, California. According to the program’s coordinator, Denise Curtis, “restorative justice is a different approach to crime. . . . Our current justice system asks: What law was broken? Who broke it? and How should they be punished? Restorative justice asks: Who has been harmed? What needs have arisen because of the harm? and Whose responsibility is it to make things as right as they can?”

As Gustin reported, the program works with youth cases referred by the district attorney. Some involve felonies such as assault, robbery, and burglary. The Oakland Unified School District has also successfully incorporated restorative justice practices as an alternative to expelling and suspending youth which, according to Curtis, “impact Black and Brown youth disproportionately much more than white youth.”

Variations of restorative justice programs currently operate in Baltimore, Minneapolis, New York, Chicago and New Orleans, among other cities, and at least one study has shown such programs have been effective in reducing recidivism. Nevertheless, few are aware of restorative justice as a real alternative to mass incarceration and this positive development deserves more news coverage.


David J. Krajicek, “Hard Time: Prisons Are Packed With More Lifers Than Ever,” WhoWhatWhy, September 18, 2013, http://whowhatwhy.com/2013/09/18/hard-time-prisons-are-packed-with-more-lifers-than-ever.

Ed Pilkington, “More Than 3000 U.S. Prisoners Locked Up for Life Without Parole for Non-Violent Crimes,” Guardian, November 13, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/13/us-prisoners-sentences-life-non-violent-crimes.

“A Living Death: Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses,” American Civil Liberties Union, November 2013, https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/111813-lwop-complete-report.pdf.

Jessica M. Pasco, “Three Strikes, He’s Out,” Good Times (Santa Cruz, CA), November 6, 2013, http://www.gtweekly.com/index.php/santa-cruz-news/santa-cruz-local-news/5182-three-strikes-hes-out.html.

Felicia Gustin, “Can Restorative Justice Save Us? A Look at an Alternative to Mass Incarceration,” War Times, November 4, 2013, http://www.war-times.org/can-restorative-justice-save-us-look-alternative-mass-incarceration.

Student Researchers: Isabella Diaz (Florida Atlantic University), Chelsea Pulver (College of Marin), and Pietro Pizzani, Mia Hulbert, and Fabiola Garcia (Indian River State College)

Faculty Evaluators: James F. Tracy (Florida Atlantic University), Susan Rahman (College of Marin) and Elliot D. Cohen (Indian River State College)