The vast majority of people serving life sentences in U.S. prisons are men. But the number of lifers who are women has increased dramatically in recent years, and evidence suggests that many of them have complicated histories with trauma and violence that courts often overlook.
A recent study by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research group that promotes criminal justice reform, presents new data on this small but growing portion of the prison population. The study, conducted in partnership with the National Black Women’s Justice Institute and the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide at Cornell Law School, shows that the number of women serving any life sentence increased by 19% between 2008 and 2020. The number of women serving life without the possibility of parole increased by 43%.
One in 15 women in U.S. prisons, over 6,600 women, are serving a life sentence or a virtual life sentence of 50 years or more, according to the study. About a third of them, nearly 2,000 women, are serving life without parole, and 52 women are on death row. The study examined the reasons behind the statistics, concluding that women face gender-based stigmas and biases in the courts that can affect their sentencing outcomes.
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The study also concluded that the history of sexual and/or physical trauma of a woman complicates the circumstances that lead them to commit violent acts. In some instances, women who commit crimes are responding to intimate partner violence. Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project and the study’s author, said the criminal justice system often does not acknowledge the relationship between trauma and violent crimes.
“At its worst, it’s sometimes blaming the victim,” Nellis said. “Let’s say a sex worker kills a customer, which happens, because she feels threatened and things get out of hand; then she’s sort of blamed for being in that kind of work.”
Nellis said more research is necessary to fully explain the rise in women serving life without parole. But she attributed some of the rise in numbers to laws expanding the use of life without parole and mandatory minimum sentences.
The study recommends that reforms to end these “extreme sentences” should acknowledge the complicated history of trauma for women serving life in prison and how it might affect their behaviors. A woman’s experience with violence, as victims and perpetrators, are different from that of men, the study said.
Accomplice crimes and overlooking abuse
The study contends that women are at a legal disadvantage because of gender-neutral sentencing policies that don’t differentiate between the principal perpetrator of a crime and the sideline participants. Women frequently play a smaller role in violent crimes, such as being a getaway driver, but still receive the same punishment, according to the study. Several women have been sentenced to death for murders regardless of their role in the crime—a phenomenon that is even more common among women sentenced to life without parole, according to the study.
Under Illinois’ felony murder rule, people can be charged with first-degree murder when someone is killed during the course of a forcible felony, even if that individual did not directly cause the death. While state lawmakers recently amended the law to limit prosecutors’ ability to charge people involved in a felony with murder when the death of a person is caused by a third party, those involved can still be charged with murder if a co-defendant was the cause of a victim’s death. And the new law does not apply retroactively to people currently in prison for felony murder.
Rachel White-Domain, director of the Women & Survivors Project at the Illinois Prison Project, a nonprofit that advocates for and represents incarcerated people, said many of her clients were coerced or forced to get involved in a crime. She said her clients fear the risk of a long sentence if they take the case to trial, so they plead guilty regardless of the documented abuse that they’ve experienced.
Nellis said while not all crimes resulting in life without parole involve survivors of domestic violence, the use of life sentences against survivors who retaliated against abusers is concerning.
In 2015, Illinois passed a law that allows people who were convicted of a forcible felony, such as burglary or criminal sexual assault, and whose participation in the crime was related to them being a victim of intimate partner violence, to petition for a reduced sentence. The law only applies if evidence of domestic violence was not presented at the person’s sentencing hearing.
In July, Nancy Rish successfully appealed her life sentence for the 1987 kidnapping and murder of Stephen Small under this new law. She filed a petition in December 2017 asking for a resentencing hearing that would allow the court to consider evidence of domestic violence. Her attorneys argued that the evidence would show that Rish was coerced by her ex-boyfriend, Daniel Edwards, into giving him a ride, but that she was unaware of his plans to kidnap Small. The circuit court denied her petition, but the appellate court ruled in her favor. A court date for her resentencing hearing has not yet been set.
A 2019 report by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, based on a sample of 163 inmates across three female-only Illinois prisons, found that practically all the incarcerated women (99%) had experienced emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse at some point in their lives.
Racial disparities and age differences
The number of Black women in prison is declining, while the population of white women in prison is increasing, according to The Sentencing Project. Yet sentencing disparities still exist. About 2.6% of Black women in prison are serving life without parole compared to 1.7% of imprisoned white women.
In contrast, among the 52 women serving death sentences, 58% are white, 25% are Black, and 11% are Latinx. Overall, 42% of women facing the death penalty are women of color.
Nellis explained that Black women are more likely than white women to have had previous encounters with the criminal justice system because of overpolicing in Black communities. Because of that history, they are more likely to get longer sentences.
The study also looked at the age at which women commit offenses leading to life without parole sentences or the death penalty. On average, women commit these offenses in their early 30s to mid-30s. The study reviewed a sample of 1,000 women serving extreme sentences across 16 states and found that Black women were, on average, 4.5 years younger at sentencing than white women. Research suggests that adults often view Black women as older and more likely to be guilty of a crime.
Black women encounter added obstacles when facing violence from intimate partners because of inaccessibility to crisis intervention programs, increased likelihood of a weapon being involved, and distrust in the police, according to the study.
White-Domain said the culture of victim blaming and the denial and the minimization of women’s trauma are exacerbated when women from marginalized groups are accused of violent crimes.
“That overlaps with the way we marginalize certain voices, certain people with very particular stereotypes about who can and can’t be a victim,” she said.