Number of US Prison Inmates Serving Life Sentences Hits New Record

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

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)