Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences

still life

The number of people serving life sentences in U.S. prisons is at an all-time high. Nearly 162,000 people are serving a life sentence – one of every nine people in prison. An additional 44,311 individuals are serving “virtual life” sentences of 50 years or more. Incorporating this category of life sentence, the total population serving a life or virtual life sentence reached 206,268 in 2016. This represents 13.9 percent of the prison population, or one of every seven people behind bars. A mix of factors has led to the broad use of life sentences in the United States, placing it in stark contrast to practices in other nations.

Every state and the federal government allow prison sentences that are so long that death in prison is presumed. This report provides a comprehensive profile of those living in this deep end of the justice system.

Every state and the federal government allow prison sentences that are so long that death in prison is presumed. This report provides a comprehensive profile of those living in this deep end of the justice system.

Our analysis provides current figures on people serving life with parole (LWP) and life without parole (LWOP) as well as a category of long-term prisoner that has not previously been quantified: those serving “virtual” or de facto life sentences. Even though virtual life sentences can extend beyond the typical lifespan, because the sentences are not legally considered life sentences, traditional counts of life-sentenced prisoners have excluded them until now.


  • As of 2016, there were 161,957 people serving life sentences, or one of every nine people in prison.
  • An additional 44,311 individuals are serving “virtual life” sentences, yielding a total population of life and virtual life sentences at 206,268 – or one of every seven people in prison.
  • The pool of people serving life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984.The increase in the LWOP population has far outpaced the changes in the LWP population.
  • There are 44,311 people serving prison sentences that are 50 years or longer. In Indiana, Louisiana, and Montana, more than 11 percent of the prison population is serving a de facto life sentence.
  • Nearly half (48.3%) of life and virtual life-sentenced individuals are African American, equal to one in five black prisoners overall.
  • Nearly 12,000 people have been sentenced to life or virtual life for crimes committed as juveniles; of these over 2,300 were sentenced to life without parole.
  • More than 17,000 individuals with an LWP, LWOP, or virtual life sentence have been convicted of nonviolent crimes.
  • The United States incarcerates people for life at a rate of 50 per 100,000, roughly equivalent to the entire incarceration rates of the Scandinavian nations of Denmark, Finland, and Sweden.


Calls for reform to the criminal justice system have been made at the state and federal level in recent years and policy changes have been adopted in many jurisdictions. The prison population overall has stopped its upward climb and in some states, substantial declines have been documented. Between 2010 and 2015, 31 states lowered their prison population and in five states, the decline was greater than 15 percent. New Jersey has led the nation with a 35 percent decline in its prison population since 1999. Motivated by overcrowded prisons and tight budgets, policymakers in select states are reconsidering the value of a harsh criminal justice response to low-level offenses, especially drug offenses, and passing legislation to shorten prison stays. Reforms are evident at the other end of the punishment spectrum as well, as the death penalty has been increasingly disfavored for its exorbitant cost and the possibility of wrongful conviction.

Absent from most mainstream criminal justice discussions is the reconsideration of long prison sentences. Evaluation of the appropriateness of lifelong prison sentences is typically either omitted from policy discussions or deliberately excluded from reforms. An example lies in an Oklahoma bill introduced in January 2017 which purports to ease prison overcrowding through establishing more flexible geriatric release. The “Parole of Aging Prisoners Act” would afford the parole board the power to grant parole to a prisoner who is at least 50 years old and has served at least 10 years in prison or one third of his or her prison term (whichever is shorter). Eligible prisoners may request to go before the parole board “on the next available docket.” However, because the bill excludes 22 separate crimes, including murder, arson, first degree burglary, aggravated robbery, and any crime that would result in sex offender registration upon release, people serving life would not qualify. In fact, analysis of data from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections concerning the number of people who would qualify reveals that only one quarter of the prisoners who are 50 years older could become eligible for parole under this proposed law.

Bills that aim to reduce prison populations but exclude whole categories of crimes illustrate the tension policymakers face between responsibly addressing prison overcrowding while appearing “tough on crime” and increasing corrections expenses. It is not “tough” to imprison people long past their proclivity— or even physical ability—to commit crime; to the contrary, it is a poor use of resources that could be put toward prevention. Moreover, reforms that exclude those convicted of violent crimes will not have a sufficient impact on mass incarceration, as more than half of those in state prisons have been convicted of such offenses.

Imprisonment for those who commit serious crimes can serve to protect society as well as apply an appropriate level of punishment for the offense. Indeed, public concerns about serious crime and maintaining public safety are among the drivers of support for long prison sentences. Yet there are diminishing benefits of high levels of incarceration on public safety. A prominent reason is that the impulse to engage in crime, including violent crime, is highly correlated with age, and by one’s early 40s even those identified as the most chronic “career criminals” have tapered off considerably. Lifelong imprisonment with limited or no chance for review only serves a retributive purpose and is often counterproductive for purposes of crime control.

Read the full report here: Still-Life

Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., Senior Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project
Morgan McLeod, Communications Manager, designed the publication layout
Casey Anderson, ProgramAssociate, assisted with graphic design.