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More than 200,000 people in the United States are serving life sentences, accounting for one out of every seven people in prison. Before America’s era of mass incarceration began in the early 1970s, there were fewer than 200,000 people in prison. It is now 1.4 million, with over 200,000 people serving life sentences, accounting for one out of every seven people in prison. In America, more people are sentenced to life in prison than were in prison serving any sentence in 1970.

In the United States, nearly five times as many people are now serving life sentences as there were in 1984, a rate of growth that has outpaced even the sharp increase in the overall prison population during this period.

The now-common use of life sentences contradicts research on effective public safety strategies, exacerbates already severe racial injustices in the criminal justice system, and exemplifies the heinous consequences of mass incarceration.

The Sentencing Project obtained official corrections data from all states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2020 to create our fifth national census on life imprisonment.


  • 203,865 people, or one in seven inmates in U.S. prisons, are serving life sentences—either life without parole (LWOP), life with parole (LWP), or virtual life (50 years or more);
  • a 66% increase since our first census in 2003, more people than ever before are serving the most severe type of life sentence—life without parole;
  • In 2020, there were more people serving life sentences than there were in 2010 in 29 states;
  • More than 61,417 lifers, or 30% of all lifers, are 55 or older;
  • 3,972 individuals with life sentences who were convicted of drug-related crimes, 38% of whom are housed in federal prisons;
  • People of colour make up more than two-thirds of those serving life sentences;

Due to modifications in law, policy, and practise that resulted in longer sentences and more restrictive parole, life imprisonment has steadily increased over the past few decades. When the nation implemented its harshest policies, such as the swift expansion of life sentences, the downward trend in American violence that persists today was already in motion. Policies implemented in response to public fears about crime, frequently based on sensationalised media stories rather than the actual prevalence of violent crime in most communities, were largely responsible for the rise in life sentences and the growing extremeness of our criminal justice system.

Even though we are aware that life in prison does not make us any safer, discussions about the usefulness of lengthy prison terms frequently end with the mention of violent crime. Most people “age out” of crime by the time they reach adulthood. Long prison sentences keep people behind bars long after their risk of committing a new crime is low.

In this report, we make the first-ever disclosure that 30% of people serving life sentences are 55 or older. Age-related incarceration has developed into a financial and humanitarian crisis that the nation must address. The COVID-19 pandemic imperils the lives of older Americans who are incarcerated, making this crisis even more urgent. Since it is uncommon for people who have served lengthy sentences to commit crimes again, releasing older lifers quickly is the only humane public health and security strategy.

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