Delaying a Second Chance: The Declining Prospects for Parole on Life Sentences
Date:  02-02-2017

One in nine people who are incarcerated in the U.S. has a life sentence
From the Executive Summary of the Prison Policy Initiative’s report Delaying a Second Chance: The Declining Prospects for Parole on Life Sentences:

Amid growing public support for criminal justice reform, policymakers and criminal justice practitioners have begun to scale back prison sentences for low-level, nonviolent crimes. Although the results have been modest—a 5% reduction in the overall U.S. prison population between 2009 and 2015—this shift follows almost four decades of prison expansion. But so far, criminal justice reform has largely excluded people in prison with life sentences. This growing “lifer” population both illustrates and contributes to the persistence of mass incarceration.

Most people serving life sentences were convicted of serious crimes. Their incarceration was intended to protect society and to provide appropriate punishment. But many were sentenced at a time when “life with the possibility of parole” meant a significantly shorter sentence than it has become today. Many remain incarcerated even though they no longer pose a public safety risk.

Researchers have shown that continuing to incarcerate those who have “aged out” of their crime-prone years is ineffective in promoting public safety. Long sentences are also limited in deterring future crimes given that most people do not expect to be apprehended for a crime, are not familiar with relevant legal penalties, or criminally offend with their judgment compromised by substance abuse or mental health problems. Unnecessarily long prison terms are also costly and impede public investments in effective crime prevention, drug treatment, and other rehabilitative programs that produce healthier and safer communities.

Despite this body of criminological evidence, the number of people serving life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984—a faster rate of growth than the overall prison population. Even between 2008 and 2012, as crime rates fell to historic lows and the total prison population contracted, the number of people serving life sentences grew by 12%. By 2012, one in nine people in U.S. state and federal prisons—nearly 160,000 people—were there under life sentences. Two factors have driven this growth: the increased imposition of life sentences, particularly those that are paroleineligible, and an increased reluctance to grant parole to the 110,000 lifers who are eligible.

This report documents the growing wait for parole among eligible lifers and identifies four factors producing longer prison terms for this population. The findings draw on a national survey in response to which 31 states and the federal government provided data for available years since 1980. The analyses reveal that a variety of policy choices and practices at the state and federal levels have caused recently paroled lifers to serve longer prison sentences than their counterparts in the past.

Read the full report here.