Life imprisonment sentences are rare in the federal criminal justice system

Gavel on American flag

Life imprisonment sentences are rare in the federal criminal justice system. Virtually all offenders convicted of a federal crime are released from prison eventually and return to society or, in the case of illegal aliens, are deported to their country of origin.

Yet in fiscal year 2013 federal judges imposed a sentence of life imprisonment without parole on 153 offenders.

Another 168 offenders received a sentence of a specific term of years that was so long it had the practical effect of being a life sentence.

Although together these offenders represent only 0.4 percent of all offenders sentenced that year, this type of sentence sets them apart from the rest of the offender population. This report examines life sentences in the federal system and the offenders on whom this punishment is imposed.

In fiscal year 2013, the courts imposed a sentence of life imprisonment in 153 cases. The number of these cases in prior years has varied, with the highest number of life sentences having been imposed in fiscal year 2009, when the courts sentenced 280 offenders to life imprisonment.

As of January 2015, there were 4,436 prisoners incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons serving a life imprisonment sentence. They accounted for 2.5 percent of the federal sentenced offenders in the BOP system.

The demographic characteristics of offenders sentenced to life imprisonment differed significantly from that of federal offenders generally. In fiscal year 2013, 45 percent of offenders receiving a life imprisonment sentence were Black, followed by White offenders (24.8%), and Hispanic offenders (24.2%). In contrast, for federal offenders generally, the racial composition was 51.5 percent Hispanic, 23.8 percent White, and 20.6 percent Black.40


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