A record 140,610 inmates in state and federal prisons are serving life sentences and nearly one-third of those have no possibility of parole, according to a criminal justice research group that supports alternatives to incarceration.
The Sentencing Project, whose reports are regularly cited in academic and government reviews examining criminal justice policy, concluded that the number of inmates sentenced to life without parole has more than tripled to 41,095 since 1992. The report, citing in part the rising cost of incarceration, urges that life without parole be abolished.
The recommendation was met with strong opposition from some law enforcement officials who said life sentences, including life without parole, help drive down violent crime.
Joseph Cassilly, past president of the National District Attorneys Association, acknowledged that long prison terms are a "huge drain on resources."
He said life sentences are appropriate for violent offenders and even some repeat drug dealers.
"Sometimes there is no way of getting through to these (criminals,)" said Cassilly, who did not dispute the report's statistical findings.
In the project's review, titled "No Exit," researchers also found "overwhelming" racial and ethnic disparities for those serving life terms: 66% are non-white and 77% of juveniles sentenced to life in prison are non-white.
"Life sentences imposed on juveniles represent a fundamental and unwise shift from the long-standing tradition that juveniles are less culpable than adults ... and are capable of change," said Ashley Nellis, a co-author of the report.
Among other findings:
• In Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and New York at least one in 6 prisoners is serving a life sentence.
• California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania each have more than 3,000 people serving life without parole.
• Pennsylvania leads the nation with 345 juveniles serving life without parole.
• The costs of housing an aging prison population also are rising. States should expect to pay $1 million for each prisoner who spends at least 40 years incarcerated, the report concluded.
Todd Clear, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the cost of maintaining a permanent prison population is daunting. The total price tag to keep today's "lifers" incarcerated for the rest of their lives could cost the nation tens of billions of dollars, he said.