Life imprisonment in the United States

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In the United States, 1 in every 2,000 inhabitants are imprisoned for life.[1] There are many U.S. states in which a convict can be released on parole after a decade or more has passed, but in California, people sentenced to life imprisonment can normally apply for parole after seven years[2]. The laws in the United States divide life sentences between "determinate life sentences" and "indeterminate life sentences," the latter indicating the possibility of an abridged sentence, usually through the process of parole. For example, sentences of "15 years to life," "25 years to life," or "life with mercy" are called "indeterminate life sentences", while a sentence of "life without the possibility of parole" or "life without mercy" is called a "determinate life sentence". Any potential for parole is not guaranteed but discretionary, making it an indeterminate sentence.[3] Even if a sentence specifically denies the possibility of parole, government officials may have the power to grant an amnesty, to reprieve, or to commute a sentence to time served.


In the 1860s, reformation became favored over penitence in American penology, with the role of prisons seen as reforming prisoners, who were imprisoned until reform was achieved. The concepts of parole and indeterminate sentencing were regarded as forward-looking in the 1870s. The initial concept of parole came from the idea that prisoners began their path to rehabilitation during their sentence, and their successful rehabilitation could be recognizable by a parole board[4]. The importance was placed on eradicating crime and having prisoners deemed ready to enter society as soon as possible. However, the ideals were not as successful as had been hoped. Crime was not eradicated, reformatories had the same problems as prisons on politicization and underfunding, and indeterminate sentencing became undermined by prisoners, who quickly found that it was possible to "beat the system" by pretense to get a better chance of winning parole. Many were soon back in custody. Similarly, prison authorities could twist it to their advantage by using those granted parole or probation to spy on and actively help to imprison other people, or sometimes by selectively denying parole.[5] However, the biggest cause of the reformatories' failure to live up to expectations was that despite the enthusiasm of reformers and Zebulon Brockway's call for an end to vengeance in criminal justice, those within the prison environment, both inmates and guards alike, continued to conceive of prison as a place of retribution.[6]

Schick's case and life imprisonment without parole[edit]

In 1954, Master Sergeant Maurice L. Schick was convicted by military court-martial of the murder of eight-year-old Susan Rothschild at Camp Zama in Japan.[7] The soldier admitted the killing stating he had a sudden "uncontrollable urge to kill" and had chosen his victim "just because she was there."[7]

Schick was sentenced to death. Six years later, the case was forwarded to President Dwight Eisenhower for final review. He exercised his right of executive clemency to commute Schick's death sentence to confinement with hard labor for the term of his natural life, with the express condition that he "shall never have any rights, privileges, claims or benefits arising under the parole and suspension or remission of sentence laws of the United States."

In 1971, Schick began a legal challenge against his whole life sentence. The appeal eventually reached the US Supreme Court in 1974. It examined the constitutional basis of the punishment: life imprisonment without parole.[8] Had Schick been given an ordinary life sentence, he would have been eligible for parole in 1969.[9]

Although Schick's sentence was given only cursory mention, the court concluded a whole life sentence was constitutional.[10] Schick, together with only five other federal prisoners who were still ineligible for parole at the time, was made eligible for parole by a separate pardon from President Gerald Ford in 1976 or 1977, and he may have died a free man in Palm Beach, Florida, in 2004.[11][12]

Despite the Schick opinion's lack of thorough analysis on life imprisonment without a chance of parole, an imposing amount of precedent has developed based upon it.[13] After Furman v. Georgia,[14] the constitutionality of the death penalty in question as life imprisonment without parole received increased attention from lawmakers and judges, as an alternative to the death penalty.[clarification needed]

Such penalties predate Schick.[15] One early American case was Ex parte Wells (1856);[16] Wells was convicted of murder in 1851 and sentenced to be hanged. On the day of his execution, President Millard Fillmore gave him a conditional pardon commuting his sentence to "imprisonment for life in the penitentiary at Washington." Wells appealed the conditions of his pardon, but the sentence was upheld with no discussion by the majority of the purpose of the substituted punishment.


A few countries worldwide have allowed for minors to be given lifetime sentences that have no provision for eventual release. Countries that allow life imprisonment without a possibility of parole for juveniles include Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba, Dominica, Israel, Nigeria, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and the United States. Of these, only the U.S. currently has minors serving such sentences. The University of San Francisco School of Law’s Center for Law & Global Justice conducted international research on the use of the sentence of life without parole for juveniles, and has found no cases outside the U.S. in which the sentence is actually imposed on juveniles.[17] As of 2009, Human Rights Watch has calculated that there are 2,589[18] youth offenders serving life without parole in the U.S.[19]

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing minors to automatic sentences of life without a chance of parole for crimes other than those involving a homicide (generally, first-degree murder, and usually with aggravating factors or accompanying felonies) violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishments", in the case of Graham v. Florida.[20] In finding that the U.S. Constitution prohibits as cruel and unusual punishment a life without parole sentence for a juvenile in a non-homicide case, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that "the overwhelming weight of international opinion against" juvenile life without a chance of parole "provide[s] respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions".[21] In 2012, the Court considered whether to ban the automatic use of it completely as a sentence for minors. The Court had already judged the death penalty unconstitutional for minors in 2005. In June 2012, the Court ruled that it could never be automatically used as a sentence for a minor (under 18), although the Court left room for it as a sentence that can eventually be given (for now) in certain first-degree murder cases once the judge has taken mitigating circumstances and other factors into account. The U.S. practice of sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without a possibility of parole violates international standards of justice, as well as treaties to which the U.S. is a party. Each state must ensure that its criminal punishments comply with the United States' international treaty obligations:

  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the oversight Committee instructed the U.S. to: "ensure that no such child offender is sentenced to life without parole [and] adopt all appropriate measures to review the situation of persons already serving such sentences".
  • The United Nations Convention Against Torture; the oversight Committee warned the U.S. that juvenile life sentences without a possibility of parole could constitute "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" for youth.
  • The oversight body of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination found that juvenile life without a chance of parole is applied disproportionately to black minors, and the U.S. has done nothing to reduce what has become pervasive discrimination. The Committee recommended that the U.S. discontinue the use of this sentence against persons under the age of eighteen at the time the offense was committed, and review the situation of persons already serving such sentences.

The United Nations General Assembly has called upon governments to: "abolish by law, as soon as imprisonment without possibility of release for those below the age of 18 years at the time of the commission of the offense".

International standards of justice hold that a juvenile life imprisonment without a possibility of parole is not warranted under any circumstances because juvenile offenders lack the experience, education, intelligence and mental development of adults and must be given a reasonable opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.[22]


Although sentences vary for each state, life imprisonment is generally mandatory for first-degree murder, particularly if it is done during the commission of another felony (the felony murder rule), or there are other aggravating circumstances present (such as rapes before such murders or for murder of any law enforcement official or other public servant) in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, including states without the death penalty, and as one or the only alternative sentence in states that have the death penalty and in federal and military courts. Life imprisonment is also a mandatory punishment in Idaho for aircraft hijacking, in New York State for terrorism, in Florida for capital sexual battery (sexual abuse of a child under 12 that causes injury to the child) and in Georgia for a second conviction for armed robbery, kidnapping, or rape and other serious violent felonies under Georgia's seven-deadly-sins law. Life imprisonment is a possibility for aggravated mayhem and torture in California. Life imprisonment is mandatory for Kidnapping in Nebraska [23]

Other specifics about life sentences in the United States continue to vary widely by individual states. Also, the sentence may be given for "drug kingpins" and "habitual criminals." It has been applied in every state except Alaska,[24] as well as in the federal courts.[25] In Alaska, the maximum term of imprisonment is for 99 years, but that is almost always considered to be a practical life sentence as a sentence of 99 years' imprisonment, especially without parole, generally lasts beyond a normal lifespan.


Over 200,000 people, or about 1 in 7 prisoners in the United States, were serving life or virtual life sentences in 2019. Over 50,000 are serving life without a chance of parole[26]. In 1993, the Times survey found, about 20 percent of all lifers had no chance of parole. By 2004, that had risen to 28 percent.[27]

As a result, the US is now housing by far the world's largest and most permanent population of prisoners who are guaranteed to die of old age behind bars. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary, for instance, more than 3,000 of the 5,100 prisoners are serving life with a chance of parole, and most of the remaining 2,100 are serving sentences so long that they cannot be completed in a typical lifetime. About 150 inmates have died there in the time period between the years of 2000 and 2005.[27] The United States holds 40% of the world’s prisoners with life sentences, more than in any other country.[28]

Parole and nonviolent offenses[edit]

Under the federal criminal code, however, with respect to offenses committed after December 1, 1987, parole has been abolished for all sentences handed down by the federal system, including life sentences. A life sentence from a federal court will therefore result in imprisonment for the life of the defendant unless a pardon or reprieve is granted by the President or if, upon appeal, the conviction is quashed.[citation needed]

Over 3,200 people nationwide are serving life terms without a chance of parole for nonviolent offenses. Of those prisoners, 80 percent are behind bars for drug-related convictions: 65 percent are African-American, 18 percent are Latino, and 16 percent are white.[29] The ACLU has called the statistics proof of "extreme racial disparities." Some of the crimes that led to life sentences include stealing gas from a truck and shoplifting but only for those with a pattern of habitual criminal offenses. A large number of those imprisoned for life had no prior criminal history but were given the sentence because of the aggravated nature of their crimes.[30]

Three-strikes law[edit]

Under some controversial sentencing guidelines known as "three-strikes laws," a broad range of crimes ranging from petty theft to murder can serve as the trigger for a mandatory or discretionary life sentence in California. Notably, the U.S. Supreme Court has on several occasions upheld lengthy sentences for petty theft including life with the possibility of parole and 50 years to life and stated that neither sentence conflicted with the ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.[31] These court decisions have been the subject of considerable controversy.


Increased use of the life imprisonment sentence, especially life without parole, came in response to debates on capital punishment. In fact, many politicians, especially in the Democratic election, expressed their emphasis on replacing the death penalty with life without parole[32]. Additionally, inflicting the death penalty is more costly to the state and taxpayer than keeping a prisoner for the duration of their life[33].

A common argument against life without parole is that it is equally as immoral as the death penalty, as it still sentences one to die in prison. Certain organizations and campaigns have been founded with a goal to work against life imprisonment and improve the rate of release. For example, the #DropLWOP campaign is dedicated to dropping the life without parole sentence and providing an automatic commutation and chance to see a parole board for all prisoners serving life sentences.[34]

Notable examples[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-10-18. Retrieved 2013-10-11.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  2. ^ "Lifer Parole Process". Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services (OVSRS). Retrieved 2020-05-08.
  3. ^ In re Jeanice D., 28 Cal. 3d 210 (1980) ("25 years to life" is an indeterminate life sentence, implying that a minor convicted of first-degree murder was eligible for commitment to the California Youth Authority, rather than determinate life sentence, which would require incarceration in a regular prison).
  4. ^ Reitz, Kevin R.; Rhine, Edward E. (2020-01-13). "Parole Release and Supervision: Critical Drivers of American Prison Policy". Annual Review of Criminology. 3 (1): 281–298. doi:10.1146/annurev-criminol-011419-041416. ISSN 2572-4568.
  5. ^ Angle, Roland E. (2014). "Build a Mass Movement: Abolish the Probation & Parole Systems to Attack the Foundation of the U.S. Police State". Race, Gender & Class. 21 (1/2): 236–245. ISSN 1082-8354. JSTOR 43496972.
  6. ^ A. E. Weiss, Prisons, A System in Trouble (1988), pp. 29–30.
  7. ^ a b "Master Sergeant Maurice L. Schick convicted of murder". Retrieved August 8, 2014.
  8. ^ Schick v. Reed, 419 U.S. 256 (1974).
  9. ^ Schick v. Reed - Significance
  10. ^ J. H. Wright, Jr., "Life Without Parole: An Alternative to the wien or Not Much of a Life At All?" 43 Vanderbilt Law Review 529, 535 (1990).
  11. ^ Craig S. Lerner. "Life without parole as a conflicted punishment" (PDF).
  12. ^ "Ford Opens Door for Parole Of Six Once Sentenced to Die for Killings in Military". Los Angeles Times. January 22, 1977.
  13. ^ Wright, supra, at p. 536.
  14. ^ 408 U.S. 238 (1972).
  15. ^ see Green v. Teets, 244 F2d 401 (9th Cir. 1957); United States v. Ragen, 146 F2d 349 (7th Cir.), cert denied, 325 U.S. 865 (1945); and State v. Dehler, 257 Minn. 549, 102 N.W.2d 696 (1960).
  16. ^ 18 How. 307 (1856).
  17. ^ See C. de la Vega & M. Leighton, Sentencing our Children to Die in Prison: Global Law and Practice, 42 U.S.F. Law Review 983, 989 (2008). The research was conducted in 2007, updated in 2008 to clarify that Tanzania, South Africa and Israel do not allow juvenile life without parole, and cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 in Graham v. Florida. The University of San Francisco Center for Law & Global Justice continues to monitor international juvenile sentencing laws and practices.
  18. ^ State Distribution of Youth Offenders Serving Juvenile Life Without a chance of Parole (JLWOP) Human Rights Watch, October 2, 2009.
  19. ^ "The Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States", Human Rights Watch, May 1, 2008
  20. ^ Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011 (2010).
  21. ^ Graham v. Florida, supra, 130 S. Ct. at 2034 (concluding that juvenile life without parole is unconstitutional for non-homicide crimes).
  22. ^ International law and practice clearly reflect the sentiments of the Graham court regarding juveniles. Graham v. Florida, supra, 130 S. Ct. at 2030.
  23. ^ "Nebraska Legislature".
  24. ^ Life Without Parole Death Penalty Information Center
  25. ^ Wright, supra, at p. 559.
  26. ^ "THE FACTS OF LIFE SENTENCES" (PDF). The Sentencing Project. 2018.
  27. ^ a b Liptak, Adam (2 October 2005). "To More Inmates, Life Term Means Dying Behind Bars". New York Times.
  28. ^ Clark, Roger S. (2019-10-12). "Life Imprisonment: A Global Human Rights Analysis by Dirk van Zyl Smit & Catherine Appleton (review)". Human Rights Quarterly. 41 (4): 1022–1035. doi:10.1353/hrq.2019.0059. ISSN 1085-794X.
  29. ^ "A Living Death: Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses". American Civil Liberties Union. June 6, 2018.
  30. ^ "Jailed for Life for Stealing a $159 Jacket? 3,200 Serving Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Crimes". Democracy Now!. November 15, 2013. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
  31. ^ See Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263 (1980) (upholding life sentence for fraudulent use of a credit card to obtain $80 worth of goods or services, passing a forged check in the amount of $28.36, and obtaining $120.75 by false pretenses) and Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63 (2003) (upholding sentence of 50 years to life for stealing videotapes on two separate occasions after three prior offenses)
  32. ^ "A voter's guide to Capital Punishment / Death Penalty: Compare where all the 2020 candidates stand". Retrieved 2020-04-27.
  33. ^ "Costs". Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved 2020-04-27.
  34. ^ "drop lwop". drop lwop. Retrieved 2020-04-26.