New Study Demonstrates Upswing in Life Sentences

WASHINGTON — A study released details the rise of inmates serving life sentences even though serious, violent crimes have been declining for the past 20 years.

The Sentencing Project recently published “Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America,” which found that from 2008 to 2012 the United States witnessed an 11.8 percent rise in inmates serving life sentences. As of 2012, 159,520 inmates were serving life sentences. This number has more than quadrupled since 1984, according to the study.

The study presented several findings as well as an overview of the history of life sentencing.

“The creep in life sentences has accelerated in recent decades as an element on the ‘tough on crime’ political environment that began in the 1980s. The idea of whole-life prison sentences easily won approval in a period of growing skepticism about the value of rehabilitation,” the study said. “Instead, punishment and incapacitation became identified as the primary goals of imprisonment and many abandoned the idea of reforming offenders.”

The study completes a thorough analysis of life sentences and presents research on such topics as race and ethnicity of life-sentenced individuals, the impact of the “three strikes” law and juveniles sentenced to life imprisonment.

According to the study, approximately 2,500 juveniles are serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The United States is the only country in the world to give life sentences to youth. Additionally, 7,862 inmates are serving life sentences without parole for offenses that occurred before the age of 18.

Youth offenders must also carry out their sentence in an adult facility. Because of growing research that finds placing youth in adult facilities dangerous, states are beginning to reconsider this element of life sentencing, the study said.

Some key findings from the study found that the population of inmates serving life without parole has risen more sharply than those with the possibility of parole. Sentences of life without parole have grown by 22.2 percent since 2008. Approximately 10,000 inmates sentenced to life in prison have been convicted of nonviolent offenses.

The Sentencing Project responds to their findings by offering several recommendations for reform including eliminating life sentences without parole; increasing the use of executive clemency; preparing inmates sentenced to life for release from prison; and restoring the role of parole.

“The capacity for change is inherent in most people given time and engagement in rehabilitative programming,” the study said. “In a system where all prisoners receive parole review, denial of parole is still an option for those who fail to show they have earned it, but the possibility of reducing unnecessary incarceration can emerge.”