A new report by The Sentencing Project, Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences, finds a record 206,268 people serving life with parole, life without parole, or virtual life sentences in 2016—one of every seven people in prison.
The report, authored by senior research analyst Ashley Nellis, provides a comprehensive analysis of individuals serving life sentences, including the first-ever census of those serving “virtual life” sentences of 50 years or more. Extreme prison sentences are a nationwide phenomenon, but in eight states — Alabama, California, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, and Utah — at least one of every five prisoners is serving a form of life in prison.
Racial disparity in the prison population is also a hallmark of mass incarceration and the composition of the population serving life reflects this stark disproportionality. Indeed, one in five African Americans in prison is serving a life or virtual life sentence. In Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, and South Carolina, two-thirds or more are African American.
The report concludes with recommendations to address the outsized life and virtual life population:
- Eliminate life without parole and dramatically scale back other life sentences;
- Improve the process of parole;
- Increase the use of clemency and authorize other mechanisms to adjust overly punitive sentences.
We hope you will help us spread the report’s eye-opening findings about the United States’ historic incarceration levels and advocate for change.