What Happened When Life Sentences Got Out of Control
A new study shows that the number of Americans sentenced to life in prison has more than doubled since the early 1990s, even though violent crime declined for the bulk of that period. And before you try to argue that crime was declining because of those stiff sentences, examine the numbers: The drop in crime began well before sentence lengths started skyrocketing.
The report was authored by Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project. It found that one in seven U.S. prisoners—roughly 200,000 people—are currently serving a life sentence. This includes those sentenced to life without parole, life with parole, and virtual life (50-plus years). That is more than twice the number of people handed life sentences than when violent crime peaked in 1992.
“The unyielding expansion of life imprisonment in recent decades transpired because of changes in law, policy, and practice that lengthened sentences and limited parole,” writes Nellis. “The downward trend in violence in America that continues today was already underway when the country adopted its most punitive policies, including the rapid expansion of life sentences.”
One result of these policies is an aging prison population. A Pew Poll found that from 1996 to 2016, the number of people aged 55 or older in state and federal prisons increased by 280 percent, ballooning from 3 to 11 percent of the total prison population. This trend is even
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