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A new report from The Sentencing Project claims there are more individuals in prison serving a life sentence right now than the entire prison population, nationwide, in 1970.

cage 1161869 640 smallAccording to the group, there are 206,000 people in prison serving a life sentence today while the prison population 50 years ago, in its entirety, was 196,000. “Starting in the 1970s, the United States’ prison population began its steady upward climb to the vastly overcrowded system we have today,” according to the organization. “While recent reforms have decreased the overall prison population by 0.5% between 2003 and 2016, there has been a 30% increase in life sentences during this period. The expansion of life imprisonment is a key component in the structure of mass incarceration.

The new fact sheet (PDF) was published by The Sentencing Project’s Campaign to End Life Imprisonment. In 24 states, there are more individuals serving a life sentence now than that same state’s prison population in 1970, according to data from Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst with the organization. In nine more states, the totals are within 100 people. “In particular, Nevada and Utah have life-sentenced populations more than four times the states’ entire prison population in 1970. The next two most dramatic shifts are in Louisiana and Alaska, where the life-sentenced populations are more than double their overall prison populations in 1970,” it continues.



Michael Bloomberg unveiled a suite of proposals on Tuesday aimed at addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system, reducing the prison population and investing in reintegration initiatives.

According to the Sentencing Project, life sentences have not proven to be a useful way to combat the crime rate, as individuals have a tendency to “age out” of crime. As such, it is expensive to keep older individuals in prison considering they will come to eventually “pose little threat to public safety.”

Prison Policy Initiative Examines NYS Geography, Looks at Impact of 'Prison Gerrymandering'

Another study, this one from the Prison Policy Initiative, shows new data regarding connections between New York State’s prison population and the neighborhood’s the prisoners originated from. The project, Mapping Disadvantage: The Geography of Incarceration in New York, “provides anonymized residence data for everyone in New York state prisons at the time of the 2010 Census,” per information from the initiative.

“If you want to study how mass incarceration has impacted specific communities in New York, or how incarceration tracks with other indicators of community health, we’ve just published the geographic data you need to do that,” said Prison Policy Initiative Research Director Wendy Sawyer.

Per the report:

  • New York City neighborhoods featuring high asthma rates among children have significantly higher incarceration rates
  • Fifth grade math scores in city school districts correlate highly with incarceration rates
  • Across New York “every 1% increase in a particular Census tract’s unemployment rate is correlated with an uptick in the incarceration rate.”

Further, for the 2020 round of redistricting, California, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, and Washington passed laws ending “prison gerrymandering.” Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Wisconsin are considering similar legislation, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Prison gerrymandering is the practice of counting prisoners in the population of where they are incarcerated, rather than their residence.

“These states are passing laws to end prison gerrymandering because they believe that everyone should have the same access to political power, regardless of whether they live next to a large prison. But these laws also have a secondary positive impact: they can make a deeper understanding of our criminal justice system possible,” said Executive Director Peter Wagner.

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