How Long Is a Life Sentence?

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In the United States, a life sentence resulting in life imprisonment is one of the most severe punitive measures under the law, next only to the death penalty.

Life sentences intend to confine offenders in prison for the remainder of their natural lives. However, this penalty may vary in nature of prison sentence and length of prison term, depending on the state law and court ruling. is a one-stop site where you can access pertinent information regarding inmates and correctional facilities across the country. If you are interested in knowing more about life sentences, read on.

Much of the variation in sentences of life imprisonment relates to the conditions and possibility of release. In addition, life sentences may also differ depending on which state sentencing guidelines apply to specific offenders.

For example, under the 2021 Florida criminal code, courts can penalize individuals who committed capital felonies on or after October 1, 1995, with life without the possibility of parole.

In contrast, Georgia state can grant parole to offenders who committed severe violent crimes on or after July 1, 2006. However, parole eligibility only comes after life prisoners (also known as lifers) have served 30 years.

The Sentencing Project, a non-profit criminal justice advocacy group, categorizes prisoners serving life sentences as:

  • Those individuals serving life without parole (LWOP)
  • Those who are serving life with parole (LWP)
  • Those who are “virtually” serving life sentences

In 2021, the Sentencing Project also published a statistical report stating that one in seven U.S. prisoners was in life imprisonment. These lifers were either on LWOP, LWP, or virtual life (50 years or more).

Moreover, according to the same report above, the overall count of individuals serving life sentences was 203,865.

As of 2022, President Joseph “Joe” Biden Jr has yet to issue executive clemency, including pardons and sentence commutations to federal inmates.

How Many Years Is a Life Sentence?

The number of years for each life sentence largely depends on state laws and applicable sentencing guidelines.

For example, many states follow an indeterminate sentencing framework that can apply to offenders serving life with parole (LWP). This provision often entails that parole boards can grant parole to offenders serving life terms within a range of prison time.

The waiting period for parole eligibility can extend up to the upper limit of natural lifespan in some states. 

In contrast, LWP offenders in California may apply for a parole hearing 13 months before their Minimum Eligible Parole Date (MEPD). 

MEPD is the date indeterminately sentenced lifers become eligible for a parole hearing. 

Common Life Sentences

Life sentences can either be determinate or indeterminate.

There are many differences between states regarding sentencing laws. Generally, there are two basic types of sentencing models within the U.S. criminal justice system:

  • Determinate sentence: This type is a  jail or prison sentence that imposes a fixed amount of time for a prison term. A parole board or any agency cannot review or change the duration of a determinate sentence.
  • Indeterminate sentence:  This type is a prison sentence ranging in length from years to decades. The state parole board hears cases to ascertain when the convicted individual is eligible for parole. 

By extension, determinate life sentences are sentences that parole boards cannot alter or reduce. This definition implies that agencies may not release the convicted criminal based on parole or good behavior.

On the other hand, indeterminate life sentences are sentences that fall within the discretion of parole boards. It is up to the parole committee to decide when to return indeterminately sentenced lifers to society.

According to a 2017 The Sentencing Project report, the states with the largest share of prisoners serving indeterminate life sentences were Utah, California, New York, Nevada, and Alabama.

Life Sentence With Parole

A life sentence with parole (LWP) means a life sentence with a chance of parole. 

Parole is the conditional release of prisoners before completing their sentences. 

Parole officers are responsible for many aspects of handling a felon’s parole. The officer’s task involves facilitating the parolee’s re-entry into society and monitoring the parolee’s activities to ensure compliance with the parole conditions.

Officers may bring parolees who violate release conditions back to prison.

Usually, the release conditions require parolees to acquire and maintain a job, avoid drugs and alcohol, stay away from their victims, not commit any crimes, and report to their parole officer regularly.

In the United States, the executive authority of a prison decides on matters involving life with parole sentences. However, in many cases, parole-eligible inmates spend the rest of their lives awaiting approval for their release.

Consecutive Life Sentences

Consecutive life sentences are back-to-back life sentences courts can impose on a defendant who committed two or more crimes.  

For example, Terry Nichols, a convicted criminal guilty of the Oklahoma City bombing, is serving 161 consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. Criminal charges against Nichols include arson, conspiracy, and 161 counts of first-degree murder cases.

Reasons for Life Sentences in Prison

Generally, life sentences apply to convicted criminals who are guilty of serious crimes. A United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) report listed the following offenses that may warrant life imprisonment:

  • Drug trafficking
  • Firearms offenses
  • Murder
  • Extortion and racketeering crimes
  • Sexual abuse, including rape and child pornography
  • Armed robbery and auto-theft cases

Why Give Multiple Life Sentences?

One of the primary goals of giving multiple life sentences is to restrict defendants’ eligibility for parole, thereby increasing the number of years they must serve.

The combination of consecutive sentences increases the number of years before a defendant is eligible for parole. 

Why Do Courts Sentence Over 100 Years?

Courts sentence defendants with over 100 years of life terms for the same reason that they give multiple life sentences. A 100-year court sentence aims to prevent those guilty of serious crimes from becoming eligible for parole.

What Is the Point of Sentencing Someone to 1000 Years?

The point of sentencing someone to 1000 years of prison term is also to restrict the defendant from becoming parole-eligible. 

However, one article argues that the purpose of a centuries-long sentence is entirely symbolic.

What Is A Minimum Life Sentence?

Depending on the jurisdiction, a one-life sentence may impose on a defendant a minimum term of 15 to 25 years.

Is A Life Sentence Only 25 Years?

The minimum term for a life sentence varies depending on the criminal law of each state and federal government.

For example, in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the imposition of mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles. 

In response, Terry Branstad, then governor of Iowa, commuted LWOP life sentences. However, he also increased the minimum term before parole eligibility to 60 years. 

What Does 25 to Life Mean?

Sentences such as “15 years to life” are called indeterminate sentences. This type of sentence may also refer to “25 to life,” or “life in prison with mercy.”

Indeterminate sentences impose a minimum term on convicted criminals. After this term, these individuals become eligible for release. 

What Is “85 of a 30-Year Sentence”?

The phrase “85 of a 30-year sentence” refers to a rule that states inmates guilty of violent crimes must serve at least 85 percent of their prison term before being eligible for parole.

How Long is “Two Life Sentences” In Jail?

A one-life sentence may last between 15 and 20 years of prison term. Two life sentences then may have a duration of 30 to 40 years.

Can You Acquire Parole on a Life Sentence?

Individuals with life sentences can get parole if the court gives them a life with the possibility of a parole sentence (LWP).

LWP individuals are automatically eligible for parole once they have served their minimum term.

How Long is a Life Sentence Without Parole?

Criminals with a life sentence without parole (LWOP) must remain in prison for the rest of their lives and cannot be eligible for conditional release until the completion of their sentences.

A life sentence without parole is the maximum sentence in states that have abolished the death penalty. Many juries in states that maintain the death penalty usually recommend that the defendant serve LWOP. 

Can a Minor Get a Life Sentence?

In the United States, the criminal justice system allows the sentencing of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP) and life imprisonment for crimes committed under the age of 18.

The United States is the only country in the world that allows LWOP as punishment for offenders under the age of 18.

Do Other Countries Have Life Sentences?

Other than the United States, other countries have life sentences. According to Penal Reform International, 183 out of 216 countries and territories maintain formal life sentences.

Formal life imprisonment may have increased globally due to punitive responses to criminal offenses. You may see this pattern in cases where courts commonly impose life sentences for a broader range of crimes to proxy the death penalty.

Final Statement

The unique issues that life-sentenced prisoners face impact the prisoners as individuals. However, life sentencing matters can also affect the entire corrections system

One study showed that life prisoners may suffer from psychological and sociological problems that can lead to desocialization and dependence. These conditions can harm the health of a prisoner and, by extension, the entire society.

Specific treatment programs may help solve the problems above. Solutions may include academic studies, physical education, or greater access to the outside world.

Moreover, the program suggestions above may motivate prisoners and allow them to confront previous or existing problems in their lives. 


1.Van, Z. S. D., & Appleton, C. (2016). Life imprisonment and human rights. Oxford, (etc.): Hart.
2. Release Types
3. Life Sentences
4. Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences
5. Clemency Statistics
6. Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America
7. Lifer Parole Process
8. Parole Eligibility
9. Indeterminate and Determinate Sentencing Models: A State-Specific Analysis of Their Effects on Recidivism
10. Determinate Sentence
11. Indeterminate Sentence
12. Parole
13. What is a Parole Officer?
14. Parole as a Right
15. Back-to-back life sentences
16. Terry Nichols
17. Life Imprisonment
18. Life Sentences in the Federal System
19. Why does the US sentence people to hundreds of years in prison?
20. Iowa’s Governor Commutes Juvenile Life-Without-parole Sentences to 60 Years Flat
21. Crime; Criminals; Parole;
22. Life Without Possibility of Parole
24. Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview

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