[Pnews] People Serving Life Exceeds Entire Prison Population of 1970

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Feb 25 15:02:30 EST 2020


  People Serving Life Exceeds Entire Prison Population of 1970

February 20, 2020

*This fact sheet is part of The Sentencing Project’s Campaign to End 
Life Imprisonment <http://www.endlifeimprisonment.org/>. Learn more 
about the facts of life imprisonment in the United States, hear stories 
of real people impacted by these punitive policies, and discover why 
#20YearsIsEnough at www.endlifeimprisonment.org 


As states come to terms with the consequences of 40 years of prison 
expansion, sentencing reform efforts across the country have focused on 
reducing stays in prison or jail for those convicted of nonviolent drug 
and property crimes. At the same time, policymakers have largely 
neglected to address the staggering number of people serving life 
sentences, comprising one of seven people in prisons nationwide. 
International comparisons document the extreme nature of these 
developments. The United States now holds an estimated 40% of the world 
population serving life imprisonment and 83% of those serving life 
without the possibility of parole. The expansion of life imprisonment 
has been a key component of the development of mass incarceration.

In this report, we present a closer look at the rise in life sentences 
amidst the overall incarceration expansion.

To place the growth of life imprisonment in perspective, the national 
lifer population of 206,000 now exceeds the size of the entire prison 
population in 1970, just prior to the prison population explosion of the 
following four decades. In 24 states, there are now more people serving 
life sentences than were in the entire prison population in 1970, and in 
an additional nine states, the life imprisonment total is within 100 
people of the 1970 prison population.

          Figure 1. Comparison of Life Sentenced-Population in 2016 to
          Prison Population in 1970

map for website

A misinterpretation of the connections between the seriousness of an 
incarcerated person’s crime and their recidivism risk after release 
often justifies policymakers’ endorsement of life imprisonment. Most 
people serving life, including for murder, will not forever present a 
risk to public safety. Even so-called “chronic-offenders,” people who 
have committed repeated crimes, gradually desist from criminal conduct 
so that their public safety risk is substantially reduced by their late 
30s or 40s. Therefore, from a public safety perspective, life 
imprisonment is an unwise investment.

States with the largest effects are in the South and West of the 
country, though the growth in life sentences in all states has been 
dramatic over these decades.

Figure 2 provides a view of the states ranked by the percent difference 
between the current number of life-sentenced prisoners and the total 
prison population in 1970. Nevada and Utah are at the top of the table 
because these states’ current life-sentenced populations are more than 
four times each states’s entire prison population in 1970. The next two 
most dramatic shifts are in Louisiana and Alaska where their 
life-sentenced populations are more than double their overall prison 
populations in 1970.

          Figure 2. Percent Difference Between Life-Sentenced Population
          in 2016 and Total Prison Population in 1970


States farther down the table, such as Ohio, show that there are 70% as 
many life-sentenced prisoners today as the entire prison population in 
1970. And in Maine at the bottom, the growth in life-sentenced prisoners 
is still notable: the number of lifers today reflects 26% of the total 
prison population from 1970.

          Figure 3. Population Change in Prison Population and
          Life-Sentenced Population, 2003-2016

population change 

The Sentencing Project has collected information from state departments 
of corrections regarding the number of people serving life sentences at 
four distinct points in time: 2003, 2009, 2012, and 2016. This allows us 
to observe trends in life imprisonment. We find that while prison totals 
have declined by 0.5% between 2003 and 2016, there has been a 30% 
increase in life sentences.

A further troubling aspect within this rise is that the most severe of 
the three categories of life sentences— life without the possibility of 
parole, or LWOP—has risen the fastest. As illustrated in Figure 4, we 
find a 59% rise in these sentences between 2003 and 2016 compared with 
an 18% increase in life with the possibility of parole.

Reasons for the continued growth in life sentences despite reversals in 
crime and incarceration more generally point to various “tough on crime” 
policies that hold people in prison longer on their life sentences.

          Figure 4. Life without Parole Growing More Quickly Than Life
          with Parole, 2003-2016

lwp v lwop 

These include habitual offender laws, mandatory minimums, elimination of 
parole, and the transfer of juveniles to the adult system. These 
policies were advanced by legislators in the 1990s, and contributed to 
the sharp increase in life sentences, but have since come under greater 

As states rethink their regimes on punishment so that public safety is 
paired with fairness, it is clearly important to adopt reforms for those 
individuals convicted of low-level and nonviolent crimes. But it would 
also be wise from a moral and fiscal standpoint, as well as the 
standpoint of public safety, to give a second look to those serving life 
sentences as well.

          Prison Population in 1970 to Life Sentenced-Population in
          2016, All States

State 	Prison Population 1970 	Life-Sentenced Population 2016 	Ratio
Alabama 	3,790 	6,104 	1.6
Alaska 	191 	400 	2.1
Arizona 	1,461 	2,309 	1.6
Arkansas 	1,658 	2,421 	1.5
California 	25,033 	40,691 	1.6
Colorado 	2,066 	3,583 	1.7
Connecticut 	1,568 	740 	0.5
Delaware 	596 	791 	1.3
Federal 	20,038 	6,720 	0.3
Florida 	9,187 	14,166 	1.5
Georgia 	5,113 	9,377 	1.8
Hawaii 	228 	360 	1.6
Idaho 	411 	649 	1.6
Illinois 	6,381 	5,092 	0.8
Indiana 	4,137 	3,767 	0.9
Iowa 	1,747 	1,169 	0.7
Kansas 	1,902 	1,377 	0.7
Kentucky 	2,849 	1,509 	0.5
Louisiana 	4,196 	11,283 	2.7
Maine 	516 	136 	0.3
Maryland 	5,186 	4,158 	0.8
Massachusetts 	2,053 	2,038 	1.0
Michigan 	9,079 	5,711 	0.6
Minnesota 	1,585 	597 	0.4
Mississippi 	1,730 	2,413 	1.4
Missouri 	3,413 	3,436 	1.0
Montana 	260 	370 	1.4
Nebraska 	1,001 	769 	0.8
Nevada 	690 	3,237 	4.7
New Hampshire 	244 	266 	1.1
New Jersey 	5,704 	2,080 	0.4
New Mexico 	742 	1,051 	1.4
New York 	12,059 	9,889 	0.8
North Carolina 	5,969 	4,132 	0.7
North Dakota 	147 	80 	0.5
Ohio 	9,185 	6,685 	0.7
Oklahoma 	3,640 	3,590 	1.0
Oregon 	1,800 	737 	0.4
Pennsylvania 	6,289 	7,800 	1.2
Rhode Island 	378 	274 	0.7
South Carolina 	2,726 	2,540 	0.9
South Dakota 	391 	371 	0.9
Tennessee 	3,268 	3,563 	1.1
Texas 	14,331 	17,755 	1.2
Utah 	491 	2,004 	4.1
Vermont 	162 	121 	0.7
Virginia 	4,648 	2,577 	0.6
Washington 	2,864 	2,953 	1.0
West Virginia 	938 	748 	0.8
Wisconsin 	2,973 	1,413 	0.5
Wyoming 	231 	311 	1.3
Total 	197,245 	206,268 	

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