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The Increase in “Life” Sentences in the Era of Mass Incarceration

Sat, Nov 21, 11:00am to 12:20pm, Hilton, Monroe, Concourse Level


In 2012, 11% of the U.S. prison inmates were serving life sentences; roughly 30% of these people have no possibility of parole (The Sentencing Project, 2013). While some growth in the imposition of life sentences likely is attributable to more punitive sentencing in general, it also may result from the increased use of life without parole (LWOP) as an alternative to the death penalty. However, we do not know the relative contribution of these factors to the high prevalence of life sentencing, nor how changes in the risk of receiving a life sentence may differ by offense type. The current study uses 1990-2009 prison admissions data from the National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP) to examine both the rate of life sentence imposition over time and changes in the likelihood of offenders receiving life, LWOP, or death penalty sentences, by offense. Using hierarchical linear modeling, we model trends in life-sentence risk across violent crimes and identify the impact of state sentencing policies on life sentencing. Our findings suggest that while the overall use of life sentences has increased substantially, “get tough” crime control strategies resulted in particularly severe punishment for some offenders.