What Does “25 to Life” Mean?

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More than 200,000 people serve life sentences in different prisons in the United States. Receiving a life sentence is a life-changing ordeal for both the convict and their families. However, many don’t know that there are different kinds of life sentences.

What is a life sentence, and is it the same as 25 to life? Do people with life sentences ever get out of prison? Can they file an appeal to lessen jail time, and how does parole work for life sentences?

This article can help you understand the term “25 to life” and the kinds of crime that can get someone this sentence. You’ll also learn the meaning of “life without parole” and whether it’s the same as a “25 to life” sentence.

Finally, this write-up will give you insight into the appeal process for life imprisonment and the chances of an inmate having the sentence lowered. Also, you’ll learn about other life sentences that the courts give in different criminal cases.

Serving a long sentence may entail prison transfers at any time. These transfers may come due to requests or as a result of a situation involving an inmate. It’s the responsibility of an inmate to inform their families of a transfer. However, there are cases where families don’t get informed of the transfer due to communication problems.

LookUpInmate.org can help families locate their loved ones behind bars during transfers through its database of more than 7,000 prisons in California, Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, and other states. You can get information about a particular facility and its list of inmates serving their sentences. Also, you can search using an inmate’s name, making it easier to locate someone who got transferred.

How Long Is a Life Sentence?

A life sentence is a prison sentence intended to last for the rest of a defendant’s natural life. This sentence is categorized as an indeterminate sentence because it has no fixed prison time limit for release.

However, defendants receiving life sentences don’t necessarily mean serving prison time for the rest of their lives.

You’ll understand how life sentences work when you know that there are two types of sentences in the criminal justice system: determinate and indeterminate.

A determinate sentence has a fixed prison time limit. The judge sets these time limits as prescribed in the sentencing guidelines for a particular crime.

Once an individual gets a determinate sentence, the parole board or any other agency can’t lessen the prescribed time limits set by the court.

Meanwhile, an indeterminate sentence has no fixed prison time limit. Instead, the defendant receives a sentence with minimum and maximum years of incarceration.

After serving an appropriate number of years, a parole board will determine whether the defendant can apply for parole.

A 25-to-life is a type of indeterminate sentence. The defendant is imprisoned for a minimum of 25 years before parole eligibility. Paroles are given to inmates showing good behavior after serving the appropriate amount of time.

A defendant who served the minimum sentence can typically apply to a parole board for a possible release.

Why a Sentence Is 25 to Life

The 25-to-life is typically given to defendants guilty of serious felonies. It means a person must spend a minimum term of 25 years before reaching parole eligibility.

What Crimes Give You 25 to Life?

According to sentencing laws in the United States, Class A felonies get 25 to life prison terms. The crimes listed below are Class A felonies:

  • Capital felony or capital offense: Crimes like this are punishable by death or life imprisonment. Capital felony or capital offense is the most severe type of crime a person can commit.

Examples of capital felonies are the following:

    1. First-degree murder – This felony is a severe type of homicide involving intentional murder with willingness, premeditation, and malice.
    2. Capital drug trafficking – This felony is characterized by illegal transportation of or transaction in prohibited or controlled substances as stated by U.S. law.
  • Aggravated sexual assault of a minor: This type of assault involves threats of serious bodily harm using a weapon and assaulting a protected class, in this case, minors.
  • Felony murder: This charge is given to a defendant who has committed a felony or violent crime resulting in another person’s death.

An example of felony murder is when a person that robbed a store caused the accidental death of its store owner. In this case, the robber is liable for felony murder.

Common felonies include burglary, robbery, rape, arson, and kidnapping. State laws may also add more to the list of felonies that can be charged with murder.

Why Give Multiple Life Sentences?

Some may wonder why judges give consecutive life sentences to a person convicted of a serious felony. It may seem strange to hear statements like “five life sentences or 30 life sentences,” especially as the court is fully aware of the average lifespan of a human being.

To understand multiple sentences, you must know that judges give sentences and prescribe how the defendant will carry them out. In cases of multiple sentences, the court will specify if the defendant will serve each sentence concurrently or consecutively.

A concurrent life sentence means the defendant serves all sentences simultaneously, with the longest sentence controlling.

A consecutive life sentence means that each sentence is added up and served one after another. Another name for consecutive sentences is cumulative sentences.

A judge can give more than one life sentence to a defendant who has two or more charges that resulted in a life sentence conviction. Also, getting more than one life sentence may prevent the defendant’s eligibility for parole, especially if the judge’s decision is consecutive life sentences.

Life Without Parole (LWOP) Sentencing in the U.S.

Life without the possibility of parole is the most severe type of imprisonment reserved for defendants with violent felony charges. LWOP is a little short of the death penalty and has become the severest punishment in states that abolished the death penalty.

Currently, LWOP is practiced in all 27 states that have death penalties. Military prisons also adopt life without parole. The only state that doesn’t allow LWOP is Alaska.

A defendant serving life without the possibility of parole sentence cannot be eligible for parole. It has become an alternative to the death sentence in many states because its prison term runs throughout the defendant’s lifespan.

1. What’s the Legal Definition of Life Without Parole in California?

The legal definition of LWOP in California is life without the possibility of parole. It is the highest form of punishment for murder, violent felonies, and habitual sex offenders that pose a threat to society.

A person sentenced to LWOP will stay behind bars throughout their entire life.

2. When Is LWOP Imposed?

The imposition of life without parole depends on the statute for a particular crime and sentencing enhancement issues.

2.1. Statute

In California, LWOP is imposed for several offenses like those stated under these penal codes.

  • P.C. §§ 187: California defines murder as the unlawful and malicious killing of a human being or fetus.
  • P.C. §§ 190: Anyone convicted of murder is punishable by death, life imprisonment without possibility of parole, or serve 25 to life in a states prison
  • P.C. §§ 261: California defines rape as sexual intercourse without consent or against the victim’s will.

Crimes like first-degree murder, rape, and other extreme sex crime, with aggravating circumstances, run the risk of receiving LWOP sentences.

2.2. Sentencing Enhancements

California includes sentencing enhancements to cover different serious crimes that result in serving life sentences. Sentencing enhancements add penalties to sentences imposed on certain kinds of crimes.

An example of sentencing enhancement is the “three strikes law,” aimed to punish habitual felony offenders in states like California. This law states that by the third violation of a violent felony, the punishment for a conviction is a life sentence.

3. What Crimes Will Get a Defendant Life Without Parole?

Different states have different laws regarding LWOP. In this case, California has listed the crimes that can result in a defendant serving life without parole.

  1. First-degree murder
  2. Felony murder
  3. Rape
  4. Lewd or lascivious acts
  5. Sexual penetration
  6. Spousal rape
  7. Treason

4. Is There an Appeal Process or Way to Be Released From Prison?

After conviction, you can file for an appeal to reevaluate your sentence. The main methods to file an appeal are listed below:

  1. Petition the governor for a commutation.
  2. File a direct appeal.
  3. Bring a writ of habeas petition. A writ of habeas corpus brings a prisoner before the court to examine whether the person’s detention or imprisonment is lawful.

It would be best to talk with your lawyer when you want to appeal your case.

4.1. Commutation

Inmates serving time in prison may appeal to the governor for a commutation.

A commutation aims to reduce or lessen the sentence or punishment imposed on an inmate. The state government can reduce sentences for state convictions. At the same time, the U.S. President can give pardon or clemency for federal convictions.

Typical grounds for commutation are the following:

  1. Good behavior
  2. Old age
  3. Illness
  4. Harsh sentences, when compared to other similar cases

Note that commutation is different from pardon. When a person receives a pardon, the state forgives the defendant of their crime. On the other hand, commutation only reduces the gravity of the defendant’s sentence or is substituted with a lesser one.

In the United States, juvenile offenders may receive LWOP sentences before they turn 18. When a juvenile gets this life term without parole, they are imprisoned throughout their natural life. On the other hand, juvenile offenders below 18 are exempt from the death penalty.

4.2. Appeal

An appeal is a legal request to an appellate court to review a lower court’s decision regarding the defendant’s case. An appeal does not retry a case, examine new evidence, or accept new testimonies from witnesses.

An appeal is a review of the court proceedings to determine if any legal errors affected the trial’s course and a party’s rights. Other grounds for appeal include juror misconduct and ineffective assistance to counsel.

Here are the steps for filing an appeal:

  1. File an appeal within 30 days after the conviction.
  2. Request transcript of the trial.
  3. File the necessary documents to the city court.
  4. Wait for the court’s response.

Suppose there was no court reporter present during the trial. In that case, you can request a transcription from the video or audio recording of the trial. You are responsible for the payment of these documents.

4.3. Habeas Corpus Petition

Another way to appeal a recent court decision is the habeas corpus petition, which is Latin for “that you have the body.” This petition is labeled an “extraordinary remedy,” as it’s an appeal to determine whether an individual’s imprisonment in a federal or state prison is lawful.

However, before a defendant files a habeas corpus petition, they should have exhausted all possible means of appeal. The courts call this doctrine  “exhausting one’s remedies.”

The court doctrine of “exhaustion of remedies” is a judicial requirement that a case or controversy will not be accepted or heard by a federal or state court until all non-judicial and administrative remedies have been exhausted.

The doctrine helps to avoid interruptions between state, federal, and administrative processes and helps conserve the resources of the judicial system. The courts will review administrative actions only when they are final.


1. What does “20 years to life” mean?

Twenty years to life means a defendant must serve a minimum of 20 years before becoming eligible for parole. The defendant should show good behavior to become eligible for parole.

2. Is 25 years a life sentence?

In Class A felonies, the minimum prison time for a lifer to gain eligibility for parole is 25 years. A parole board reviews that defendant’s case and determines if parole is applicable.

3. What does the “15 to life” sentence mean?

A “15 to life” sentence is an example of a sentence of life with a possibility of parole. A defendant can be eligible for parole after serving the appropriate time prescribed by law. The parole board reviews the case and determines if parole is applicable.


1. No End In Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Sentences
2. Back-to-back life sentences
3. Determinate Sentence
4. Indeterminate sentence
5. Crimes With Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentences—UPDATED AND REVISED
6. Life without parole
7. Appealing a Decision

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