A new study reveals that Virginia has nearly twice as many people serving a life sentence than Tennessee.
The Sentencing Project recently released its quadrennial census of people in the United States sentenced to life behind bars. The report, No End in Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment, estimates that 4,193 people in Virginia, amounting to 14% of the state’s prison population, are serving a life sentence.
In Tennessee, 2,831 people are serving a life sentence, or 6% of the prison population. Nationally, one in seven people in prison — totaling 203,865 individuals — is serving life behind bars, according to the report.
The report also provides an analysis of the proliferation of life sentences over the past 35 years and describes who is most affected by these punishments, the organization said in a news release. The report offers proposals for changing course.
“The mainstream use of life imprisonment in the American justice system deprives people of their dignity, exacerbates already-extreme racial injustice and perpetuates a system of excessive punishment across the entire sentencing spectrum,” said Amy Fettig, executive director of The Sentencing Project. “In order to correct the harms caused by mass incarceration, lawmakers must confront the futility of life imprisonment and end its use.”
There were 1,239 people serving life with the chance of parole in Virginia in 2020, the report states. In addition, 1,628 were serving life without parole. Another 1,326 people were serving a virtual life sentence, which means the person is serving a sentence of 50 years or more before parole opportunities.
In Tennessee, 1,855 people were serving life with parole, 286 were serving life without parole and 690 people were serving a virtual life sentence, the report states.
The report notes that Virginia was the only state that refused to participate in The Sentencing Project’s census, claiming Freedom of Information Act exemptions. The organization said it estimated the state’s use of life imprisonment using data obtained from the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, as well as through published reports on the state’s website.
In order to lower the number of life sentences, the report recommended several options, including abolishing life without parole. It also suggests limiting life sentences to 20 years, except in rare circumstances, and accelerate and expand release opportunities.