More than 200,000 people are serving life sentences in U.S. prisons today, and most of them are locked in state correctional facilities. The vast majority of lifers are people of color, about 30% are people age 55 and older, and an increasing number are women. A recent study by The Sentencing Project examines the reasons behind the harrowing statistics — and the consequences of “America’s enduring reliance on life imprisonment.”
The Sentencing Project, a research group that promotes criminal justice reform, looked at three forms of life sentences served by people at state and federal prisons across the country: life with parole, life without parole, and de facto life sentences (sentences of 50 years or more).
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The study, “No End in Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment,” shows that more people are serving life in prison than were serving any sentence in 1970, before mass incarceration took hold in America, when the prison population was less than 200,000 people. Today, the prison population stands at 1.4 million, with 203,865 people serving life sentences — or one in seven people, according to the study.
The increase in people serving life in prison has been driven by policy changes and revisions to the law that made sentences longer and limited parole. While state and federal lawmakers enacted the changes in response to public fears about crime, those fears stemmed from exaggerated media coverage rather than the frequency of violent crime, the study said.
The result is prisons holding thousands of people beyond the age in which they’d likely commit a new crime, which comes at an exorbitant cost to taxpayers, according to the study.
The study recommended abolishing life without parole and limiting all life sentences to 20 years, except where a person remains a public safety risk after serving time. The cap would create a cultural shift away from harsh sentences, as recent polling suggests most Americans think the aims of the justice system should include redemption and transformation of people who commit crimes, not mere punishment, the study said.
The study also recommends expanding opportunities for release, prioritizing older prisoners sentenced to life considering the risk of Covid-19. The money governments would save by reducing the population of people serving life prison sentences instead could be invested in restorative justice models committed to supporting healing by survivors of crime and holding people who commit crimes accountable with empathy and compassion, the study said.
Renaldo Hudson was one of 167 people to have their death sentences commuted to life in prison by then-Gov. George Ryan in 2003. Like most people sentenced to life, his crime was violent — a 1983 murder. But he used his 37 years in prison to better himself, including overcoming illiteracy and mentoring other incarcerated people. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Gov. J.B. Pritzker began commuting some sentences, including Hudson’s.
“It’s still continually sinking in that I’m no longer condemned to die in prison,” said Hudson, now the education director of the Illinois Prison Project, a criminal justice advocacy group. “To go from having all of that pressure, all of that humiliation removed just in the stroke of someone saying, ‘I think you deserve a second chance in life,’ that was probably the most amazing thing to happen in my life.”
Here’s a closer look at what The Sentencing Project study found.
Racial disparities are omnipresent in the criminal justice system but are even more pronounced among people serving life. The study said “elevated rates of Black and Latinx imprisonment have been recorded for many decades, partly caused by higher levels of engagement in violent offenses among Black people, but greatly exacerbated by overly harsh policies advanced in the 1980s and 1990s, including increasing mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws and the abandonment of parole.”
More than two-thirds of people serving life sentences are people of color, according to the study. Nationally, one in five Black men serving time is serving for life.
Though Illinois falls outside the top 10 states in terms of the number of people serving life in prison, it has one of the highest percentages of Black people serving life sentences behind Maryland, Louisiana, Georgia, and Mississippi. In Illinois, about 4,300 people are serving life or virtual life sentences, 67% of lifers are Black, 11% are Latinx, and 21% are white, according to the study.
“You have to look back at how it came into fruition,” Hudson said.
He blamed local prosecutors and politicians for embracing so-called tough-on-crime policies pushed by former President Richard Nixon in the ’70s and laying the groundwork for the racial disparities.
“I walked around in prison, and every time I talked to someone with life without the possibility of parole, sadly, they looked just like me,” Hudson said.
The rapid growth in female lifers
Most lifers are men. But the study noted that the number of women serving life sentences at U.S. prisons has increased dramatically compared to the percent of women sentenced to prison for violent crimes. Between 2008 and 2020, women imprisoned for violent crimes increased 2% as the number of women serving life sentences increased 20%, according to the study.
During the same period, the number of women serving life without parole increased by 43% compared to a 29% increase among men. One in nine Black women in prison are serving life, the study said. Researchers interviewed women serving life sentences in Michigan, and anecdotal evidence suggested, in many cases, that the women were convicted for aiding and abetting someone else committing a crime.
Rachel White-Domain represents many women serving life sentences as director of the Women & Survivors Project at the Illinois Prison Project. She said it’s very common for her clients to be charged with murder after acting in self-defense against an abuser.
“I have clients,” White-Domain said, “who are serving life sentences because an abusive partner or another abusive person in their life, such as someone who was sex trafficking them, and for example killed other people, and my client was forced to go along with it.”
An aging prison population
The tough-on-crime policies have created an aging prison population in institutions not designed to care for them. Aging in prison is harsher on people because the high-stress environment makes medical conditions develop sooner and the cost of care higher, the study said. People 55 years old and older, who run a higher risk of serious complications and death from Covid-19, make up 12% of the state prison populations but 30% of people serving life, the study found. In 2020, 61,417 people older than age 55 were serving a life sentence, according to the study. Prisons are fiscally responsible for housing, feeding and providing medical care for all these elderly prisoners, who typically pose no threat to public safety, the study said.