A report released in May, 2004 by The Sentencing Project, “The Meaning of ‘Life’: Long Prison Sentences in Context,” documents a dramatic increase in the number of prisoners serving life without parole sentences and demonstrates that prisoners are serving increasingly longer terms of incarceration. Findings in the report include the following:

  • Of the lifers in prison, one in four (26.3%) is serving a sentence of life without parole, having increased from one in six (17.8%) in 1992.
  • In six states – Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota – all life sentences are imposed without the possibility of parole.
  • Seven states – Alabama, California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania – have more than 1,000 prisoners each serving sentences of life without parole.
  • The increase in prison time for lifers is a result of changes in state policy and not due to increases in violent crime.


In Louisiana and Pennsylvania one of every ten prisoners is serving a life sentence, which in those states means life without the possibility of parole.

Four states – Alaska, Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas – have no inmates serving life without the possibility of parole, while Louisiana leads the nation with the highest percentage of inmates serving life without the possibility of parole - 10.6%. Note: Texas holds the second largest number of people on death row in the nation; Kansas recently adopted a sentence of life without parole.


In Georgia, the Board of Pardons and Paroles reported in 1998 that more life-sentenced inmates had died in prison that year than had been paroled. According to Parole Board Chair Walter Ray, “There’s a popular misconception that life in prison doesn’t mean all of one’s natural life. In just the last year, there are 21 Georgia lifers who are no longer around to tell you otherwise. If they could, they’d let you know that parole for a life sentence is a rare commodity.”


Research conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics documents that one of every six people in prison has a history of mental illness. These figures are even more pronounced among the population of lifers, with nearly one in five lifers (18.4%) having a history mental illness, totaling an estimated 23,523 life-sentenced prisoners.


Over the past decade, an increasing number of states has adopted laws making it easier to try juveniles in adult court. As a result, crimes committed by young people can now result in much harsher punishments, including life sentences. While there are presently no national data on the number of such lifer cases, they are clearly increasing in many states. A recent report documents that just in the state of Michigan alone, there are at least 146 persons serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were 14-16 years old.

- Marc Mauer, Ryan S. King, and Malcolm C. Young, “The Meaning of ‘Life’: Long Prison Sentences in Context”, The Sentencing Project, May 2004.