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More cautionary tales from the US

Jul 29, 2009

The US-based research and advocacy organization The Sentencing Project has just released a report called No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America. They summarize their findings as follows:

While persons serving life sentences include those who present a serious threat to public safety, they also include those for whom the length of sentence is questionable. In particular, life without parole sentences often represent a misuse of limited correctional resources and discount the capacity for personal growth and rehabilitation that comes with the passage of time. This report challenges the supposition that all life sentences are necessary to keep the public safe, compared to a term of fewer years. We conclude with recommendations for changes in law, policy and practice which would, if adopted, address the principal deficiencies in the sentencing of people to life in prison.
  • 140,610 individuals are serving life sentences, representing one of every 11 people (9.5%) in prison.
  • Twenty-nine percent (41,095) of the individuals serving life sentences have no possibility of parole.
  • The number of individuals serving life without parole sentences increased by 22% from 33,633 to 41,095 between 2003 and 2008. This is nearly four times the rate of growth of the parole-eligible life sentenced population.
  • In five states—Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and New York—at least 1 in 6 people in prison are serving a life sentence.
  • The highest proportion of life sentences relative to the prison population is in California, where 20% of the prison population is serving a life sentence, up from 18.1% in 2003. Among these 34,164 life sentences, 10.8% are life without parole.
  • Racial and ethnic minorities serve a disproportionate share of life sentences. Two-thirds of people with life sentences (66.4%) are nonwhite, reaching as high as 83.7% of the life sentenced population in the state of New York.
  • There are 6,807 juveniles serving life sentences; 1,755, or 25.8%, of whom are serving sentences of life without parole.
  • Seventy-seven percent of juveniles sentenced to life are youth of color.
  • There are 4,694 women and girls serving life sentences; 28.4% of females sentenced to life do not have the possibility of parole.

In a footnote they explain what they include as a "life sentence":

The term “life sentence” is used in a variety of ways and consequently there is much public confusion regarding its meaning. While the intuitive definition of a life sentence is a prison term for the remainder of one’s natural life, in fact the term also includes various indeterminate sentences, or sentences whose length can be reduced by commutation, parole, or pardon. The term “life without parole” refers to sentences where parole is not possible. In this report, we do not consider sentences that would equate to one’s life (e.g., a sentence of 90 years, after which one might be eligible for parole). Figures presented here are therefore conservative estimates of the number of people those who will spend the rest of their lives in prison.

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