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The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences

By Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis
Featuring six portraits of lifers by formerly incarcerated author Kerry Myers
“A riveting, passionate case against lifetime incarceration and a plea for criminal justice reform.”
—Kirkus Reviews
“[A] trenchant and urgent book.” —Publishers Weekly

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Still Life

America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences

Despite historically low crime rates and political support for criminal justice reform increasing in most states, the number of people serving life sentences in U.S. prisons is at an all-time high. A record 206,268 people were serving life with parole, life without parole, or virtual life sentences in 2016—one of every seven people in prison. A mix of factors has led to the broad use of life sentences in the United States, placing it in stark contrast to practices in other nations.

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The Facts of Life Sentences

1 in 7 people in prison is serving a life sentence

The overwhelming majority of individuals who commit crime—even serious crime—will “age out” of criminal behavior, and their continued incarceration diminishes returns on public safety.

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Delaying a Second Chance

The Declining Prospects for Parole on Life Sentences

Over the past three decades many legislatures, governors, and parole boards have toughened lifer parole policies and practices—effectively increasing prison terms for the more than 110,000 individuals serving parole-eligible life sentences.

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Women and Girls Serving Life Sentences

Number of women serving life sentences rising faster than men

Nationwide one of every 15 women in prison — nearly 7,000 women — is serving a life or virtual life sentence. One-third of them have no chance for parole, so their prospects for release are highly improbable.

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Virtual Life Sentences

A sentence of 50 years or longer becomes a “virtual life” sentence for most individuals

In 2016, The Sentencing Project conducted the first-ever count of virtual life sentences. This fact sheet provides a summary of this long-overlooked population of individuals serving such sentences.

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Youth Sentenced to Life Imprisonment

Sentencing youth to potentially lifelong imprisonment is virtually nonexistent anywhere else in the world

Despite evidence that adolescent brain development should mitigate the culpability of youth, all states allow juveniles to be sentenced to life imprisonment, and all but two states have persons serving a life or “virtual life” sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile.

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People Serving Life Exceeds Entire Prison Population of 1970

The expansion of life imprisonment is a key component in the structure of mass incarceration

In this report, we present a closer look at the rise in life sentences amidst the overall incarceration expansion. The national lifer population of 206,000 now exceeds the size of the entire prison population in 1970, just prior to the prison population explosion of the following four decades.

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