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One in nine U.S. inmates serving life terms

(by Frank Green, Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 15, 2013, Link)

 

Almost 160,000 prison inmates in the U.S. — one in every nine — are serving life, or life without parole sentences, a 12 percent increase from 2008 to 2012, a recent study found.

According to The Sentencing Project’s report, “Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America,” some 2,145 Virginia inmates, or fewer than 6 percent of Virginia’s 37,000 prisoners, are serving life or multiple life terms.

While crime has been dropping and prison populations generally declining in recent years, the study found that since 1984 the lifer population in U.S. prisons has quadrupled and one-third of those serving life have no hope of parole.

The fastest rise among the lifers has been in the population of those serving without possibility of parole, now 49,000 nationwide, a 22 percent increase since 2008.

Figures available from the Virginia Department of Corrections indicate that roughly 45 percent of inmates serving life in Virginia are not eligible for parole.

Virginia enacted a law in the 1980s that allowed for life sentences for people convicted of three violent felonies such as murder, rape or robbery.

The sweeping sentencing changes in Virginia that took effect for crimes committed on or after Jan. 1, 1995, now mean that life terms are true life terms. Before that, someone sentenced to life could be eligible for parole consideration after serving 15 years.

The Sentencing Project said true life sentences gained popularity when the U.S. Supreme Court barred executions in the U.S. from 1972 to 1976.

The trend accelerated in recent decades in an effort to get “tough on crime.” Before 1972, only seven states had laws permitting life terms without parole, now all states except Alaska have them.

Ashley Nellis, the report’s author, said that, “As policymakers search for ways to reduce our reliance on mass incarceration, they will hit a substantial roadblock unless they reconsider the broad use of life sentences.”

“In far too many cases, these policies have resulted in excessive punishments that are counterproductive for public safety,” she said.

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