Washington, DC - A new report released by The Sentencing Project finds a record 140,610 individuals are now serving life sentences in state and federal prisons, 6,807 of whom were juveniles at the time of the crime. In addition, 29% of persons serving a life sentence (41,095) have no possibility of parole, and 1,755 were juveniles at the time of the crime.
No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America represents the first nationwide collection of life sentence data documenting race, ethnicity and gender. The report's findings reveal overwhelming racial and ethnic disparities in the allocation of life sentences: 66% of all persons sentenced to life are non-white, and 77% of juveniles serving life sentences are non-white.
"Life sentences imposed on juveniles represent a fundamental and unwise shift from the longstanding tradition that juveniles are less culpable than adults for their behavior and are capable of change," said Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., Research Analyst of The Sentencing Project and co-author of No Exit.
Other findings in the report include:
- In five states - Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and New York -at least 1 in 6 prisoners is serving a life sentence.
- Five states - California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania - each have more than 3,000 people serving life without parole. Pennsylvania leads the nation with 345 juveniles serving sentences of life without parole.
- In six states - Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota - and the federal government, all life sentences are imposed without the possibility of parole.
- The dramatic growth in life sentences is not primarily a result of higher crime rates, but of policy changes that have imposed harsher punishments and restricted parole consideration.
The authors of the report state that persons serving life sentences "include those who present a serious threat to public safety, but also include those for whom the length of sentence is questionable." One such case documented is that of Ali Foroutan, currently serving a sentence of 25 years to life for possession of 0.03 grams of methamphetamine under California's "three strikes" law.
The report is released at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear two Florida cases of juveniles sentenced to life without parole. In Graham v. Florida, 17-year-old Terrance Graham was convicted of taking part in an armed home-invasion robbery while on probation for committing a violent crime when he was 16 years old, and was sentenced to life without parole.In the case of Sullivan v. Florida, Joe Sullivan was convicted of sexual battery committed when he was 13 years old and sentenced to life without parole. Sullivan is now 33 and is severely debilitated by multiple sclerosis.
The Sentencing Project calls for the elimination of sentences of life without parole, and restoring discretion to parole boards to determine suitability for release. The report also recommends that individuals serving parole-eligible life sentences be properly prepared for reentry back into the community.
"Life without parole sentences have proven to be costly and shortsighted," said Ryan S. King, Policy Analyst of The Sentencing Project and report co-author. "Locking up someone for life without any option for release ignores the potential for transformative personal growth and undermines efforts to seek forgiveness and redemption."
The Sentencing Project is a national non-profit organization engaged in research and advocacy for criminal justice reform. Click here to download No Exit.