A life sentence is not what you think — imprisonment for a defendant’s life. Depending on the sentence and the state you are in, a life sentence may be shorter or longer than a lifetime. Judges issue sentences based on state law and the circumstances of each case, but parole boards decide when prisoners are released after they serve the minimum sentence. However, those sentenced to life without parole face a life incarcerated, with rare exceptions, like clemency. And since they know that parole boards release prisoners early, judges may sentence a prisoner to multiple life sentences to ensure a prisoner remains behind bars for life or close to it. In that way, a prisoner eligible for parole for one life sentence still has another one or more to complete before release.
Criminal sentencing is a balancing act of the state law sentencing guidelines and the judge’s discretion, where the law allows for leeway. Judges can draft sentences to keep defendants imprisoned for as long as the crimes warrant, and state or federal criminal law allows. Thus, how long a lifelong prison sentence is, depends on many factors.
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How Long Is A Life Sentence In Prison?
How much time a prisoner serves depends on the state, but the national average is 15 years for life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. For example, a Texas prisoner convicted in a capital murder case may not become eligible for parole for 40 years. But in California, an inmate can typically apply for parole after serving half their sentence and, in some cases, as little as seven years. And while most states allow parole requests after a prisoner serves one-half to one-third of their sentence, about 15 to 25 years, a sentence for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is another story.
Life without the possibility of parole sentences means just that: a prisoner may not apply for early release. The sentence amounts to a mandatory life sentence, which is issued to those who commit the worst crimes like premeditated murder, rape, and felony murder. Unless a prisoner receives clemency, which is a governmental pardon, or gets their sentence reversed on legal grounds, life means life.
Some states are stricter than others. In Louisiana, lifers who committed certain crimes remain in prison regardless of the circumstances. Some states consider enhancements or prior convictions for serious crimes as grounds for life without parole sentences. So, Alabama life sentences include non-injury crimes if the defendant has three prior criminal convictions. But judges can also consider mitigating circumstances in sentencing. Thus, if a felon committed a heinous crime but suffered from substance abuse or cooperated with the authorities rather than resisted arrest, a court could consider all factors in sentencing.
And while judges have some discretion, their hands are mostly tied to the federal or state sentencing laws. Whether a convicted felon gets a life sentence, life without parole, death sentence, or consecutive life sentences for the worst crimes is dictated by law. All states have guidelines judges must follow when sentencing a convicted person. So, for example, murder in Georgia gets you three possibilities: life with or without the possibility of parole and the death sentence. Aggravating factors like prior convictions, murdering government officials, risking harm to more than one person, and especially heinous murders can sway a judge to give the harshest punishment.
Why Judges Hand Out Multiple Life Sentences
The first reason for multiple life sentences is to account for multiple victims. So, for someone who commits mass murder, each murder has a sentence attached to it. Each sentence recognizes a victim. The judicial system in the United States aims to punish wrongdoing to keep the public safe, deter crime, and exact justice for those wronged by a criminal violator. State and federal legislatures include multiple life sentences for the most serious crimes to fulfill the purposes of societal laws.
Another reason for multiple life imprisonment sentences is to adequately punish someone for a particularly egregious crime that does not quite reach the level of capital punishment. So, to ensure a convicted person stays in prison for life, a judge may order consecutive life sentences. Knowing that prisoners have parole boards to appeal to for early release and petitions to reduce their life sentence, judges may want to boost the chances a dangerous felon will remain behind bars for the rest of their lives.
So, an individual charged with 15 acts of cruelty and sexual abuse to a child may get multiple life sentences, one for each act against the child. Even if the state requires the offender to serve 15 life sentences with the possibility of parole, they will never see the light of day outside prison. For each life term, they would have to wait a minimum sentence of fifteen years, on average, for appealing to a parole board. But each sentence would require the 15-year minimum before parole eligibility, a total of 225 years.
Therefore, unless you live in Florida, or a state that also eliminated life with parole sentences, then a judge might dole out multiple life imprisonment sentences to keep repeat offenders or the most violent criminal offenders off the streets. So, in all states but Arizona. Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia, and Wisconsin, which do not offer life with the possibility of parole, multiple life sentences are, in practical effect, life sentences.
Consecutive vs. Concurrent Life Sentences
Multiple life sentence terms keep dangerous felons from the public only if the sentences are consecutive, meaning back-to-back. As such, two life sentences might be 15 to 25 years each, depending on the state, before parole eligibility, totaling 30 to 50 years. If the sentenced individual is 25 at the time of their conviction, they would be 55 to 75 years at release. An average natural life span is about 78 years.
However, concurrent sentences run together. So, for prison terms that run concurrently, the prisoner spends less time in jail. Say a prisoner is serving time for two separate crimes, one with a five-year sentence and the other a three-year sentence. The prisoner would serve five years if they served the full term. In other words, the lesser sentence is absorbed into the greater, and the prisoner gets credit for time served for both after five years.
Most likely, however, the prisoner would not serve a full term if they earned credits for work and good behavior. A parole board deciding if the prisoner gets an early release would deduct time for their orderly and productive behavior.
Indeterminate vs. Determinate Life Sentences
Calculating a sentence of life is easier if you are handed a determinate sentence. In states with determinate sentences, there is no minimum sentence to serve within a range of possible sentences. The law states the penalty for a crime in definite terms. For example, the penalty for a misdemeanor for shoplifting items valued at less than $100.00 is six months in county jail in a certain state. If the law punishes a convicted defendant for that infraction, they have no choice but to sentence a convicted person to that amount of time. It is fixed.
On the other hand, an indeterminate sentence may be a range, such as up to six months in jail for shoplifting merchandise worth less than $100.00. In that case, a judge can issue a thirty-day, three-month, or six-month jail term, depending on the circumstances. A defendant with a prior conviction for shoplifting may get the maximum, while a first-timer may get the minimum.
In terms of life sentences, a convicted felon could get an indeterminate sentence of 25 years to life or life with the possibility of parole. In Florida, the felon would get life without the possibility of parole or life with no mercy, which is a determinate sentence.
Eligibility For Parole
Parole eligibility means a prisoner with an indeterminate sentence may petition a parole board for early release. If granted, they get to leave prison and rejoin the general population under the supervision of a parole officer. But parole is only available in states that have a parole system. States that have determinate sentencing set the time of release. A prisoner may serve one-third of their sentence and then serve the rest in the community with supervision, assuming the prisoner showed good behavior in prison. Other states use a combination of supervised release under a determinate system and parole.
Typically, an inmate serves one-third to one-half of their sentence before seeking parole, but it depends on each state’s laws. Some crimes have mandatory minimum sentences attached to them. In New Jersey, aggravated sexual assault comes with a mandatory minimum of 85% of the prison term before a prisoner is eligible for parole.
Parole boards consider several factors in deciding whether a prisoner is out on parole. In some states, the severity of the crime and the felon’s criminal history affect eligibility. For example, Louisiana lengthens the minimum parole eligibility time served for each prior conviction. As to lifers, a parole board wants to know if a prisoner is safe to be released into the community. The prisoner’s age and criminal history bear on the decision.
Applying For Parole
Once a prisoner is eligible, meaning they served the minimum number of years of their sentence, they may apply for parole. Each state and the federal government have its own application process and forms. But essentially, the prisoner applies for a parole hearing. In federal prisons, an inmate gets a hearing within nine months of applying.
Usually, boards hold hearings before deciding, so they can review the inmate’s records to make sure they qualify and maintained a satisfactory record during their prison time. An inmate has a better chance of parole if their institutional record shows good behavior. Other considerations of a prisoner’s suitability for parole are the type of crime, whether drug trafficking, armed robbery, or second-degree murder, for example. Also criminal history, age, plans for the future, and social history, to name a few.
Public safety is paramount. A board may consider a first-time offender convicted of drug trafficking as less dangerous than one convicted of a savage first-degree murder or armed robbery that led to a victim’s death, especially if it is their second or third conviction. Victim statements, an inmate’s mental health, and a juvenile record may also be relevant to the decision. Once they decide, a board issues a written record of their findings and decision to the parole applicant.
The Bottom Line
In sum, life sentences may or may not last until prisoners die. Some die in prison while others live out their remaining lives outside prison. Much depends on the state or federal law and the sentencing judge. In states that mandate prisoners sentenced to life have no possibility for early release, convicted lifers die incarcerated. In states with parole systems, a prisoner may get released after serving a portion of their sentence. Some states have high mandatory minimum sentences for the most severe crimes so that a prisoner serves most of their term.
Where leeway is possible, judges can craft sentences to suit the circumstances. A repentant first-time felon with sympathetic circumstances may get life with parole, while an unrepentant repeat offender may get multiple life sentences for several criminal convictions. State law, federal law, supreme court decisions, and individual criminal justice systems dictate the length of a life sentence.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long is life in prison for a person with mental illness?
For inmates with mental illness, a life prison term may be longer than for most. Those with mental challenges have difficulty understanding or following rules in prison, so when the prisoner is parole-eligible, they may not be judged safe to be out in the community.
On the other hand, some judges may sentence one with mental health issues more leniently. It may not serve the purposes of deterrence and rehabilitation, two aims of a criminal justice system, to imprison one with mental illness. They may be more suitable for probation so that a probation officer can oversee their life outside prison. But the severity of the crime may require life imprisonment.
What is the shortest life sentence?
Several states sentence convicted felons to two years to life. Typically, drug crime sentences that anticipate strictly supervised rehabilitation range from the shortest, two years, to life. That means a prisoner is eligible for parole after two years. For example, Idaho sentences meth producers to two years to life.
A shorter sentence may be available to those who commit lesser crimes. For instance, Colorado sentences those convicted of class 4 felonies to the same range, two years to life. Class 4 felonies are lesser crimes that are not violent or sex related.
What is the longest life sentence?
The longest sentence in the United States is 30,000 years. Charles Scott Robinson received the sentence in Oklahoma on December 23, 1994, for multiple incidences of child rape. The second-longest belongs to Allan Wayne McLaurin, also from Oklahoma. His sentence was 21, 250 years for his role as an accomplice in committing the rape of an elderly woman, kidnapping, larceny, robbery, and other crimes.
Bobbie Joe Long, a Florida serial rapist, received 28 life sentences, 99 years, and one death sentence, raping over 50 women and killing over 25 of them. Horrific crimes such as these motivate judges to give the maximum sentence, but mandatory minimum sentences may also result in long sentences for multiple crimes.
Can a minor receive a life sentence?
Since the United States Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), some states allow juvenile life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. A judge sentences an individual under the age of 18 to life without parole.
Each state has laws governing juvenile delinquency and sentencing. Many restrict the harshest sentences or try a juvenile as an adult by age limits. For instance, a minor under 15 may not be tried as an adult or receive life sentences in some states. Juvenile life sentences are more likely to be the most serious crimes, like premeditated murder.