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More cautionary tales from the US

July 25, 2009
  • 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


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