National Institute on Aging

Huge Racial Disparity in Prisoners Serving Life Sentences

A new report from The Sentencing Project find that nearly 162,000 people in the United States are serving a life sentence – one of every nine people in prison. An additional 44,311 individuals are serving “virtual life” sentences of 50 years or more. Incorporating this category of life sentence, the total population serving a life or virtual life sentence reached 206,268 in 2016. This represents 13.9 percent of the prison population, or one of every seven people behind bars.

The report breaks down the data by race. According to the report, nearly one half of life and virtual life-sentenced prisoners are African American. In Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, and South Carolina two thirds or more are African American. The highest rate is in Maryland, where 75.6 percent of all prisoners serving life or virtual life sentences are Black.

In federal prisons, Blacks make up 58.9 percent of all inmates serving life or virtual life sentences.

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