What Does “15 Years To Life” Mean?

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When you hear the term “life sentence,” you may naturally assume it means lifelong imprisonment.

However, did you know there are many kinds of life sentences? Surprisingly, not all life sentences automatically mean being incarcerated your whole life.

So, what does a life sentence mean?

This article defines a life sentence and clarifies phrases like “15 years to life” and “25 years to life,” which are both life sentences with different lengths.

You’ll also understand the concept of parole and how inmates with life sentences become eligible for this alternative prison sentence.

Furthermore, you’ll get insights into the purpose of life sentences, multiple life sentences, how the criminal justice system implements them, and the possibility of minors getting sentenced to life without parole.

There are cases where prisoners, even though they have life sentences, can still be transferred to different locations depending on circumstances and upon the warden’s approval. Your loved one might get relocated without notice when a transfer is approved.

However, through the help of online facility and inmate locators like LookUpInmate.org, you can quickly find your loved one’s location and other details like the address of the facility, visitation hours, and policies.

How Long Is a Life Sentence?

When you look up the definition of a life sentence, you’ll find that it’s a prison term that lasts the entire natural life of a convict. Unlike the death penalty, people serving life terms are given the appropriate time for repentance.

In the United States, sentences with 15 to 25 years are regarded as life terms. But you may ask, “How can they be life terms if they have specific years?” The answer lies in understanding that the United States has two types of life sentences:

  • A determinate sentence is a prison sentence with a specific or fixed number of years a person must serve to their entirety. A parole board or other agency can’t change or reduce a determinate sentence.
  • An indeterminate sentence is life imprisonment with minimum years of incarceration.

An example of an indeterminate sentence is 15 years to life. The convicted must serve at least 15 years to be eligible for parole.

With this discussion, hopefully, you’ll understand why states without death sentences use terms like “life imprisonment without the possibility of parole” to emphasize lifetime incarceration.

The purpose of incarceration is to provide a means of retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, and incapacitation. Sometimes, for the protection of society, people deemed threats are incarcerated to prevent them from disrupting society and further harming innocents.

What “Does 10 Years to Life” Mean?

A charge like “10 years to life” is an indeterminate life sentence that means the convict must serve a minimum of 10 years for a chance of parole.

How Long Is “15 Consecutive Life Sentences”?

Consecutive or back-to-back life sentences might confuse people unaware of the law. Judges giving 15 consecutive life sentences may seem illogical, but the court fully knows that people don’t live forever.

The purpose of consecutive life sentences is to reduce the possibility of a prisoner becoming eligible for parole.

A real-life example of a 15 consecutive life sentence is the case of Robert Hanssen, an FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) agent who also worked as a Russian spy. After his arrest and conviction, the court sentenced him to serve 15 consecutive life sentences.

If you do some calculations, a 15-consecutive life sentence will mean more than 200 years before a person can apply for parole.

What Does “25 Years to Life” Mean?

This sentence of life imprisonment is indeterminate, meaning a convicted person must serve at least 25 years before parole eligibility.

When Sentenced to Prison

When the court sentences someone to life in prison, it’s a life-changing experience for the convicted. The inmate and their family must cope and adapt because they won’t see each other in more accessible conditions. However, one’s preparation for prison depends on different arrest conditions.

When someone receives a life sentence, it’s a life-changing experience for the convicted. Both the inmate and their family must cope and adapt to a new reality where they won’t have easy access to each other. However, the preparation for serving one’s prison sentence varies based on the arrest circumstances.

In the U.S.

Here are a few facts about being sentenced to a detention facility in the United States (U.S.):

  • One in seven people is serving life sentences in the U.S. Some serve life without parole (LWOP) sentences, while others serve virtual life (50 years).
  • Twenty-nine states had more people serving life imprisonment in 2020.
  • More than 2/3 of lifers in prisons are people of color.
  • One in every 15 women serves life imprisonment.

For Nonviolent Offenders

Prisoner welfare advocates like the American Civil Liberties (ACLU) demand the end of LWOP for nonviolent offenders. Problems with long prison sentences have resulted in the imposition of the Model Penal Code that suggests inmate case reviews after 15 years.

For First-Degree Murder

If you commit a first-degree murder in California, you’ll usually get a minimum of 25 years to life imprisonment.

However, serious crimes like aggravated first-degree murder can get a prison term of life without parole.

The courts will consider various factors and circumstances to determine the type of life imprisonment to impose.

Aggravating circumstances increase the severity of the crime, resulting in harsher punishment. On the other hand, mitigating circumstances lessen the severity, leading to more lenient sentences.

Multiple Life Sentences?

There are instances where you’ll hear judges ordering more than one life sentence in the news. As mentioned, judges give back-to-back life sentences to prevent the incarcerated from applying for parole.

Why Give Multiple Life Sentences?

The main reason why judges impose multiple life sentences is to deprive dangerous criminals of a chance for parole.

As you already know, a life sentence with the possibility of parole requires a minimum number of years to be served before an inmate becomes eligible for parole.

Charging multiple life sentences adds to the minimum number of years the incarcerated is required to serve. If judges don’t stack up multiple life sentences, inmates may have the opportunity for parole review.

Multiple life sentences also ensure the imprisonment of convicted individuals, even if the defendant manages to have the decision for one sentence overturned.

For instance, if someone receives three consecutive life sentences for felony murder, the defendant must file an appeal for each case individually. Such a legal ordeal is expensive and time-consuming, potentially discouraging to the defendant, which is one of the purposes of multiple life sentences.

Can a Minor Get a Life Sentence?

The U.S. Supreme Court stated that sentencing a minor to life without parole (LWOP) violated the 8th Amendment, except if the person commits intentional homicide.

The decision made by the Supreme Court wasn’t set in place until 2011. Consequently, many previous minor offenders have actual life-long sentences that they must serve. Many youths were released from prison after the S.C. decision that LWOP for minors was against the Constitution.

Life Parole Process

The chance of parole brings hope to those who have loved ones behind bars. If you’re an inmate longing to reunite with your family, parole offers an opportunity to move forward, make amends, and reform.


The parole process starts with a proceeding held by the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) to determine an offender’s eligibility for transition into parole supervision. However, some things must be considered before a person can receive this alternative to prison.

Prisoners with life with the possibility of parole sentences typically become eligible within 13 months before they reach the minimum parole eligibility date.

Remember that parole eligibility is not automatically given after an inmate serves the prison sentence’s minimum required time. The decision still falls on the board after they’ve scrutinized each candidate’s case individually.

Suitability Criteria

How each state conducts its parole hearings and the criteria it uses to determine whether an inmate is eligible for parole may vary. However, here’s an outline of the most common factors determining inmate parole eligibility.

  • Sentence length: In most cases, prisoners become eligible for parole if they’ve served the minimum sentence length. In the case of a “15 years to life” sentence, the minimum time needed is 15 years.
  • The severity of the offense: There are cases where parole eligibility depends on the type of criminal offense committed. Inmates with felonies like armed robbery, drug trafficking, and murder may need further proof that they’ve changed in prison.
  • Good behavior: Another significant factor influencing parole eligibility is whether an incarcerated individual is reformed.

The Public Comment

The idea of public comment is an opportunity for anyone to have their voices heard, especially regarding a proposed government action.

Parole hearing sessions allow anyone to provide public comment about the offender. Anyone, including victims, family members, witnesses, and interested community members, can share their comments regarding an inmate’s parole eligibility by writing to the parole board.

The BPH files every public comment for scrutiny and considers them in future hearings.

During parole hearings, the parole board allows the offender to tell their story and prove that they’re worthy of the privilege.

Factors considered during these hearings are the offender’s criminal history and overall performance during all those years in prison.

A parole hearing should be done with utmost care because the public’s safety is always at stake.

What Happens if the Offender Is Granted Parole?

When parole is granted, the decision is subject to review. The board or panel will explain the decision and conduct checks and balances. The checks ensure that the release of a prisoner will not endanger the public’s safety. Here are some of the checks and balances before parole is granted:

  • The BPH determines if there are any errors of law or fact.
  • The Office of the Governor is given the choice to review the decision within 30 days or allow the decision to stand.
  • The governor can actively approve a decision for someone to receive parole.
  • The governor can modify decisions like adding a condition or changing a parole date.
  • The governor can reverse the decision.
  • The governor can refer the decision to the BPH so that all commissioners can reconsider the panel’s decision.

What Happens if the Offender Is Denied Parole?

If you’re an offender and the board denies your parole application, the hearing examiner will provide reasons for the denial through a notice of action. You’ll know the reasons for the rejection and the advisory when you can file an appeal.

For sentences under seven years, you can file an appeal 18 months after the last hearing. As the law states, hearings for sentences above seven years will be scheduled 24 months after the last hearing.

Sua Sponte Review

In California, a sua sponte review says that if an offender is denied a minimum of three years, the case will automatically get reviewed to determine if the next parole hearing can be set to an earlier date.

A sua sponte review is an action automatically made by a body like a parole board to resolve an issue without any suggestion from other parties.

Petition to Advance

An offender whose parole application was denied can file a petition to advance and request that the hearing be set earlier. Usually, a petition to advance can be filed once every three years of the initial petition’s denial period.

Life Without Possibility of Parole

Under criminal law, life without the possibility of parole is given to convicted defendants that have committed felonies. Some states have sentencing laws that don’t have a death penalty.

So, the most extreme incarceration punishment given to offenders is a life sentence without parole, serving time behind bars for the rest of their lives.

If you need an inmate and facility locator to get contact information for the facility where your loved one is housed, visit LookUpInmate.org. You’ll have access to an extensive database of more than 7,000 correction facilities in the United States.


1. Determinate sentence
2. back-to-back life sentences
3. Why Do Judges Hand out Multiple Life Sentences?
https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/why-judges-hand-multiple-life-sentence s.html
4. Lifer Parole Process
5. Frequently Asked Questions

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