REPORT: U.S. Obsession with Increasingly Extreme Prison Sentences

By Alexander Ramirez

WASHINGTON D.C. – Research done by The Sentencing Project has shown that the number of people being sentenced to a life sentence without parole, life sentence with parole, or a virtual life sentence of over 50 years has been increasing since the initial life sentences were first recorded in 1984.

One in seven people currently in prison are serving life sentences, according to the report – that means 203,865 individuals are currently in prison with a life sentence; five times the level in 1984.

Research shows these sentences have been disproportionately higher among minority communities, with 46 percent of this population being Black, and 16 percent being Latinx. The number of women currently serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) have also increased 43 percent between 2008 and 2020.

Although the population of inmates over 55 years of age only makes up 12 percent of the state prison population, this same population makes up 30 percent of the population serving life sentences, whether or not they still pose a threat to the population.

The Sentencing Project performs research like this to bring to light the disparities and the destructive practices that plague the American prison system in hopes of leading to reform in the future.

“Life sentences are a poor way to achieve public safety because most people mature and change for the better with time, including people who have committed serious crimes,” said Ashley Nellis, the report’s author, adding, “Keeping people apart from the rest of society for decades beyond what is necessary is both cruel and costly.”

Some states are attempting to provide reform to this system through second-look legislation.

In 2018, California passed a law that allowed for prosecutors to argue a sentencing they believed were too harsh at the time of sentencing. The Council of the District of Columbia also passed legislation that allowed inmates under the age of 25 when they were sentenced to petition for a resentencing after 15 years.

The Sentencing Project would argue that this is a good start, emphasizing “start.”

To complement this reform, The Sentencing Project also suggested that a maximum cap of 20 years should be allowed for life sentences, except in rare circumstances.

This would free up funds to work on giving aid to communities and inmates affected by the prison system, so as to properly prepare them with dealing with the physical and emotional stress they may have received during their time in prison.

“Enacting a 20-year cap on life sentences in most cases could reverse the tough-on-crime policies debunked by years of social science. This cap would recalibrate all sentences downward, leading to substantial reductions in incarceration and producing a more humane, effective, just, and merciful system,” according to the group.

The main pushback against this is most people who received life sentences have committed violent acts to warrant their sentence. However, people who committed violent acts are not more likely to commit another violent act than someone who committed a non-violent act when they are released.

Proper parole and sentencing boards are necessary to properly gauge the inmates who are ready to be released, said The Sentencing Project.

Looking beyond the current congestion of inmates or the safety of those inmates, both caused by the COVID pandemic, for the sake of human rights and a more humane justice system, The Sentencing Project would argue that we need change, and need it now.

Alexander Ramirez is a third-year Political Science major at the University of California, Davis. He hopes to hone his writing skills in preparation for the inevitable time of graduation.

Support our work – to become a sustaining at $5 – $10- $25 per month hit the link:

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

Related posts


    1. David Greenwald

      Compared to El Salvador or Honduras, I agree. But I wasn’t aware that’s where I standard lies. Moreover, we have a higher incarceration rate than either country.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Moreover, we have a higher incarceration rate than either country.

        And, a lower crime rate?

        Isn’t that (supposedly) why they’re coming to the U.S. to claim asylum?

        1. Ron Oertel

          Well, I guess that “average” is better than the locations from which the asylum-seekers are coming from, or so we’re told as the reason.

          Of course, that “average” varies greatly by state, city and neighborhood. With the asylum-seekers often ending up in the worst areas of the U.S., I would think.

      2. Keith Olsen

        Compared to El Salvador or Honduras,

        Compared to a lot of countries all over the world.  I guess our high incarceration rate doesn’t deter them.  Maybe it’s a magnet because they know they will be safer here unless all of these new social justice laws and agendas make us less safer.

      3. Bill Marshall

        Moreover, we have a higher incarceration rate than either country.

        Yes… but people are ‘incarcerated’ for much less than violent crimes (article), where the focus is not incarceration rates, but rather, the ‘length of incarceration’… are you “conflating”?  Same with Don’s chart, below… but he restricts it to “homocides”… doesn’t even mention execution rates, or ‘extra-judicial’ executions where the one who commits the crime never is in the judicial system (applies to some of the countries in the chart Don provided)

        Concept of length of incarceration limits has possible merit… however neither you nor Don brought much to that main point of the article… IMHO…

  1. Don Shor

    Here are some examples of current homicide vs incarceration rates for selected countries to demonstrate that there is no correlation between sentencing and public safety. You can go back literally decades now and find studies that show that longer prison sentences don’t deter crimes (I just found one from 1987). But the problem is that voting for shorter sentences may mean voting to release some specific people who have been found guilty of heinous crimes. And if one of them goes out and commits another crime, the spectre of Willie Horton arises again for politicians who will now be described as being ‘soft on crime’.

    An added complexity is that long and mandatory sentences have vastly increased the prison population. We have to build and manage enormous amounts of space and provide staffing for them. With the clear abuses found in for-profit prisons, this cost is a burden that the taxpayers will increasingly have to bear (I favor abolishing private penal systems entirely). Overcrowding has led to a COVID health crisis in our jails and prisons, as the Vanguard has clearly documented over time.

    All of this is reaching a critical mass as judges order prisons and jails to be managed more humanely and without overcrowding.

    So how many more prisons do we want to build and run? How much are we willing to spend to house and provide health care to a burgeoning prison population seemingly forever?

    If it can be shown that longer sentences don’t deter crimes, and that there is an alternative to incarceration that has proven results, it might be possible to get people on board with a major reform. If you just say ‘release people’ I doubt you’ll get much traction.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Is “violent crime” also a chart in that source, Don?  Do the homocides include 2nd/3rd degree murder? Involuntary manslaughter (which is a ‘homocide’)?

      I only ask, because the article compares sentences for those convicted of ‘violent crimes’ and sentences… and subsequent outcomes… the chart you provided is not clear as to what the ‘homocide’ metric.

      In addition, there are many more ‘violent crimes’ than homicides, including forcible rape with great bodily injury, DUI with great bodily injury, mayhem with great bodily injury…

      The topic is kinda’ rocket science… the graphic/chart is a ‘snapshot’ of but one piece of the puzzle… but thank you for providing that snapshot.  Those who commit violent crimes are oft never identified, tried, until they have committed many, over a period of time…

  2. Bill Marshall

    With the clear abuses found in for-profit prisons, this cost is a burden that the taxpayers will increasingly have to bear (I favor abolishing private penal systems entirely). Overcrowding has led to a COVID health crisis in our jails and prisons, as the Vanguard has clearly documented over time.

    Drifting lightly off-topic, but you opened the door, Don… the VG has pointed out COVID-related abuses, frequently, but pretty much only citing “public” jails and prisons… not so much on the “private” side… there are many abuses, well beyond Covid-related in both models… in the “public” model, powerful (politically) unions work to thwart possible ‘reforms’/changes, while demanding more pay/benefits for their workers… on the “private side”, apparently not so much… as the taxpayers unltimately pay for either, I’m agnostic (as in, “don’t know”), at this point, which is the better model… the whole “industry”, public or private, has serious problems/issues… So, at this point, don’t fully understand your “pro-abolition” position regarding the “private” model…

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for