From "Sing Sing"
on the shores of the Hudson in New York to California's Folsom
State, a record number of "lifers" are now crowding the cells of
The number of convicted felons serving some kind of life sentence
has rocketed to 127,000 nationwide - an 83 percent jump since 1992.
More than a quarter of them are ineligible for parole.
The increase is a result of the 1990s - call it the "get tough"
decade - during which an expansion of mandatory minimum sentences,
three-strikes and truth-in-sentencing laws lengthened prison
sentences and limited parole options. Indeed, the average lifer now
spends 37 percent more time in prison than a decade ago, up from 21
years to 29 years.
The findings are from a first of its kind, 50-state study of
"lifers" conducted by the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice
reform think tank in Washington.
"These sentences are having a very significant impact on the size
and costs of incarceration," says Marc Mauer, the assistant director
of the Sentencing Project and one of the report's authors.
"Every time a judge makes a determination to sentence a person to
life, conservatively speaking it will cost $1 million to keep them
locked up for life. If that person is Charles Manson, few people
will have a problem with that. On the other hand, if it's a battered
woman who strikes back at her accuser and kills him, that presents a
different set of questions."
Supporters of such "get-tough" policies credit the fact that so
many more felons are locked up for life with helping to bring the
crime rate down 35 percent during that same period. To them, the
study shows the policies have been a clear success.
"What we're seeing is the high crime rates we suffered starting
in the 1960s caused public policymakers to finally realize one
contribution they could make toward restoring law and order is to
increase the number of serious and violent offenders in prison and
also to increase the sentences which they serve," says Dave
Muhlhausen, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "It's
But critics contend that their inflexibility has crowded the
country's prisons with juveniles, indigents, battered women, and
mentally ill inmates. The study estimates that 23,500 of the
nation's "lifers" suffer from mental illness.
In California, almost 60 percent of the lifers in a three-strikes
conviction are serving the time for a nonviolent offense.
For corrections officials, those that have to cope on a daily
basis with housing, feeding, guarding, and providing medical care to
the increasing numbers of long-term inmates, the study just brings
home the challenges they face in finding a way to pay for it
"Given the budget crisis it's a challenge to get the resources,"
says Joe Weedon, director of government affairs for the American
Correctional Association in Lanham, Md. "You have to reexamine
everything that you're doing to find the money to fund the
healthcare in particular, which is the fastest growing expenditure
within a facility."
Some prisons have privatized medical facilities to save money,
others have invested in new technologies to try to cut down on
staffing. And state legislatures around the country have been
implementing reforms, modifying some of the mandatory sentencing
laws to allow for more flexibility, and increasing funding for
reentry programs in an effort to cut down on recidivism.
In states like New York, those moves have been instrumental in
keeping the prison population in check. But reform advocates and
some corrections officials worry that the savings generated by the
recent changes could easily be overwhelmed by the increasing costs
of maintaining the record number of lifers.
"If these 'lifer' trends continue, they're very likely to
overwhelm any reform that takes place," says Mr. Mauer.