The History of Life Imprisonment in the United States

  1. Criminal Justice Reform
  2. Incarceration
  3. Juvenile Justice
  4. Prisoner Reentry
  5. Race and Inequality

Key Findings

  • In 2012, 159,520 people were serving life sentences, an 11.8% increase since 2008.
  • One out of nine individuals served a life sentence in 2012.
  • In 2012, the population of prisoners serving life without parole rose 22.2% from 2008.
  • Ten thousand people serving life sentences were convicted of nonviolent offences in 2012.
  • Half of the people serving life sentences in 2012 were African American and one in six were Latino.
  • More than 10,000 inmates were convicted of crimes before they turned 18 years old and nearly one in four were sentenced to life without parole in 2012.
  • More than 5,300 life-sentenced inmates are female.


In the study, “Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Imprisonment in the United States,” Nellis and her coauthors examined the trends in the population of prisoners serving life sentences with and without parole.  In 2012, many prisons across the nation closed, but the amount of people serving life sentences continued to grow. Nellis and her coauthors used state department census to complete the report. The authors also used survey data from people serving life sentences from all 50 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2012. This data included demographic characteristics, offense types and other long-term trends in the life-sentenced population.

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