How Long is a Life Sentence? Shortest, Longest, and Everything In Between.

A life sentence can be misleading as it does not mean that the convicted criminal will be incarcerated for the rest of that person’s natural life. More often than not, it is a regular prison sentence that comes with the possibility of parole after a certain amount of years.

State law dictates the length of the sentence that the prisoner has to serve before becoming eligible for parole. Total time served can be a percentage such as 85% of the period or a set number of years – 2, 10, 15, 20, 25, 40, or even 99. Once the life sentence or appropriate portion of the life sentence has been carried out and the inmate is eligible for parole, a parole board will decide whether the offender should be released on parole or sent back to prison.

Use the table of contents above to view a summary of your state laws.

*Note – Many states have a Life Without Parole which means spending the rest of a person’s natural life in prison.

What is the length of a life sentence?

Each state has a different length for different crimes. Usually, the more severe crime committed, the longer the definition of life imprisonment is. Crimes such as first-degree murder, human trafficking, sexual assault of a minor, and other violent crimes can all result in the most severe life sentences.

This means that the length of a life sentence can vary from 2-99+ years in the United States. Skip ahead to our state-by-state overview to see precisely how long a life sentence can be in your jurisdiction.

Why do judges give multiple life sentences?

A judge can choose to give concurrent or consecutive life sentences.

You might ask why they would bother convicting someone with multiple concurrent life sentences?

The most common reason a judge will give multiple life sentences is that it reduces the chance of appeal. For example, if there are multiple victims from one incident, the judge will likely assign concurrent life sentences so that even if one of the cases is lost in appeal, the other life sentence will still hold up.

Additionally, consecutive life sentences are used when the judge wants to punish the defendant more severely. This increases the amount of time that must be served without the possibility of parole while also reducing the chance of one case being lost in appeal.

What is the difference between concurrent and consecutive life sentences?

Consecutive life sentences must be served one after the other to double, triple, or essentially cause the sentence to continue indefinitely. Concurrent sentences usually stem from a single event and may be served simultaneously. However, the judge has discretion and, depending on the nature of the crime, can choose to make a consecutive life sentence concurrent and vice versa. For example, a judge would assign multiple concurrent life sentences to account for each victim individually and reduce the chance that any single conviction gets overturned on appeal.

In the United States, there is no maximum sentence, so the longest sentence given in terms of years was to convicted child rapist Scott Robinson who received 30,000 years for 6 counts of rape as an 8-time felon. The most consecutive life sentences was delivered to Terry Nichols for 161 counts of first-degree murder, first-degree arson, and conspiracy for his part in the Oklahoma City Bombing after the jury was deadlocked on the death sentence.

What does a life sentence mean?

Life sentences are an indeterminate period that allows the criminal justice system to assign a punishment that varies depending on the criminal’s rehabilitation. As a result, the minimum time served can vary significantly. It varies by state and can range from a short time of 2 years for someone sentenced under the Colorado Lifetime Supervision Act, which uses progression in treatment as a metric for release; to Life Without Parole (LWOP) in California (and many other states) which carries a mandatory life sentence of the rest of the defendant’s natural life.

How can I challenge a life sentence?

There are 3 ways that you can petition to have a life sentence overturned in most states.

  1. Petition the state governor for a commutation of the sentence
  2. File an appeal to overturn the sentence
  3. A writ of habeas corpus is typically the last chance a prisoner has of getting out of a life sentence; this questions the validity of the state’s detention of the convicted. Habeas corpus has a higher success rate the more severe the punishment, so in the instance of the death penalty, it is granted nearly 50% of the time.

What is a determinate vs indeterminate life sentence?

A determinate life sentence is an exact amount of time typically determined by legislation wherein the convicted person must serve the amount of time they were sentenced. An indeterminate life sentence allows for a range where the convicted person may be released on parole after serving their minimum sentence.

What is the longest life sentence?

In terms of years, the longest life sentence in the United States is 99 years (Alabama). But, of course, there are other terms that are effectively longer, such as Life Without Parole (Many States).

Which states only have life sentences without the possibility of parole?

There are 6 states where the punishment of a life sentence is only given out as a determinate sentence, life without the possibility of parole. These 6 states are:

  • Illionois
  • Iowa
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Dakota

What is the shortest life sentence?

There are multiple states where a prisoner under certain circumstances can become eligible for parole after 2 years served of a life sentence. Often these variable life sentences are given for crimes that require additional rehabilitation or stricter parole.

In Colorado, there is a life sentence that becomes eligible for parole after 2 years served. This would be a class 4 felony with a presumptive minimum of 2 years and a maximum of life. Therefore, a convicted criminal could do anywhere between two years and their entire life behind bars under this law.

Additionally, Idaho also has a life sentence for the production of Meth that can range between 2 years to life depending on behaviour.

How Long is a Life Sentence – A State by State Overview

Alabama

A life sentence in Alabama can range from 10-99 years.

In Alabama, a life sentence can mean a wide variety of things depending on the crime committed. For first-time offenders, Alabama has a minimum sentencing of at least 15 years for class A felonies (this is extended to 20 years if the crime involves a gun or deadly weapon). This means for first-time offenders, life in prison for a Class A Felony will often mean 15-20 years minimum.

For second-time felony offenders previously sentenced, the minimum sentence is often bumped up into the next felony class. This means that a Class C felony will be charged as a B, and a Class B to a Class A. If the conviction is for a Class A felony, they must be imprisoned for life or a term of not more than 99 years but a minimum of 15. (Ala. Code § 13A-5-9(a)). The lowest length of time for a Class C felony in this range is life with a minimum of 10 years.

For third-time felony offenders, the punishments become stiffer still and result in the following life terms:

Class A: If the prior conviction were a Class A felony, then the convicted person would be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. If the prior felonies were for Class B or C felonies, they would be sentenced to life or life without parole, depending on the judge’s discretion.

Class B: Life or a minimum of at least 20 years.

Class C: Life or a term of at least 15 years

Alabama has some of the widest ranges of what a life sentence could be with definite terms ranging from 10-99 years and the option to have a person convicted to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Alabama also has the death penalty.

Alaska

Alaska does not have a life sentence.

Alaska uses determinate sentencing and is the only state not to use life sentences. However, the maximum term of imprisonment of 99 years without parole is essentially the same as life in prison.

Arizona

Arizona life sentences can be 25, 35, or for the rest of the convict’s natural life.

Arizona has 2 types of life imprisonment (and the death penalty). These consist of life imprisonment and natural life imprisonment. Between the two, natural life imprisonment is much more severe as it does not allow the convict to achieve parole (unless pardoned by the governor); they must remain in prison for the rest of their life. The more general ‘life imprisonment’ sentencing allows eligibility for parole with times adjusted for the age of the crime. Offenders convicted of crimes against minors under the age of 15 are eligible for a parole hearing after 35 years. If the victim was 15 years of age or older, the convict is eligible for parole after 25 years.

Arkansas

Arkansas life sentences can be 10 to 40 years or for the rest of the convict’s natural life.

In Arkansas, there are 6 categories of felonies. Class Y, A, B, C, D, and Unclassified. Class Y penalties are the most severe and are the only ones that carry with them a potential for life sentencing. The range in time is between 10-40 years or life. For the crime of capital murder in Arkansas, the person convicted can be sent to prison for the remainder of their life unless pardoned by the governor.

California

California life sentences can be 25 or 30 years before being eligible for parole. These can be extended if a gun is used in the crime. California also has life imprisonment without chance of parole.

In the provisions of section 3046, the Supreme Court of California says that “No prisoner imprisoned under a life sentence may be paroled until he has served at least seven calendar years.” which seems to suggest that prisoners may be paroled after seven years. However, this is not practically the case.

If a gun is used in the commission of a felony, the courts may add 10, 20, 25, or even LWOP if a firearm is used in the commission of a felony.

California’s three-strikes law means that a defendant who has been convicted of 2 prior felonies must receive an ‘indeterminate term of life imprisonment‘. This is calculated as three times the term otherwise provided as punishment for each current felony conviction subsequent to the two or more prior serious or violent felony convictions OR 25 years. Whichever is greater.

Colorado

In Colorado, a life sentence can be between 2 years and the rest of the convict’s life.

This shortened length is only for convicts involved in the Colorado Sex Offender Lifetime Supervision Act. With Colorado’s indeterminate life sentence system, the shortest time that can be served under this scheme is the minimum presumptive sentence for the felony class of crime and no more than twice the presumptive maximum. So, for example, a class 4 felony that carries a presumptive minimum of 2 years and a maximum of 6 years can have a life sentence of that minimum and twice the maximum. While this may seem like it allows felons to get off easy with shorter life sentences, this act allows the system to control inmate’s release if they have bad or good behaviour. This incentivizes rehabilitation over punishment.

Colorado also has more traditional life sentences for Class 1 Felonies (first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping, and treason); for these crimes, an adult would be charged with a life sentence with no possibility of parole. If the man sentenced was a juvenile at the time of the offense, they must serve a life sentence with a minimum of 40 years before being eligible for parole.

Connecticut

In Connecticut, a life sentence means a definite sentence of sixty years ( Sec. 53a-35b). Connecticut also allows for a life sentence without chance of parole for felony murder, capital, and arson murder.

Delaware

In Delaware, a life sentence can be 15-45 years.

The Delaware Supreme Court decided that life imprisonment was effectively a 45-year term with eligibility for parole occurring after that time was completed. However, this can be reduced with merits for good behaviour.

Florida

A capital offender in Florida is assigned a sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. However, Florida also has life without the possibility of parole.

Florida has used LWOP sentencing to replace capital punishment. As a result, it currently has the highest number of inmates serving life without parole, nearly a quarter of the total LWOP prison population nationwide.

Florida no longer has a traditional parole board. Instead, once a prisoner becomes eligible for parole, the Florida Commission on Offender Review (FCOR) decides on whether they will be released or not.

Georgia

In Georgia defendants who are serving a serious life felony may be eligible for parole after 7, 10, 14, 25, 30, or even 60 years depending on the severity of their crimes.

Georgia changed it’s laws regarding life sentencing minimum timelines in 2006. Defendants who are committed prior to July 1, 2006 for violent felonies are considered for parole after having served 14 years. For those committed after 2006, they must serve 30 years prior to being eligible for parole.

A person sentenced for consecutive life sentences after July 1, 2006 must serve 60 years without the possibility of parole.

Defendants serving life sentences for drug offenses are able to get a parole hearing after 7 years.

Hawaii

In Hawaii a person can be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, this is effectively a maximum sentence. Life with parole allows for a term to be set by the Hawaii Parole Authority.

Typically a life with parole minimum sentence will be 20-50 years although the Hawaii Parole Authority has discretion to raise or lower mandatory prison time for elements such as past behaviour, criminal activity, and good behaviour.

Idaho

In Idaho, a life sentence can be 2, 5, 10, or life without parole.

Idaho has a unique system for sentencing. Unlike most other states that have classes of felonies (ABC,123), Idaho gives guidelines on what the minimum and maximum sentences for each crime should be depending on the severity of the crime. This means that some crimes have quite a bit of leeway in sentencing; for example the production of methamphetamine can result in a court sentence of 2 years to life. Life sentences may be given for the following crimes:

  • Robbery – 5 years to life
  • Producing Meth – 2 years to life
  • Voluntary Mansalughter – 15 years to life
  • Aggravated battery – 15 years to life

The judge will hand out a minimum amount of time that you must spend in prison during sentencing.

Illinois

Illinois is one of 6 states where a life sentence is only given out as ‘life without the possibility of parole’. This means that in Illinois a life sentence will last for the rest of the convicted’s natural life, unless they are under the age of 18. In 2019 the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that more than 40 years serves as a de facto life sentence for those convicted of a life sentence under the age of 18.

Indiana

15 years to life for crimes that are not first or second degree murder. For crimes that are more severe Indiana law can convict someone for terms of life without parole or 45 years to life.

As of 2021 Indiana has the most individuals serving life with parole, life without parole, or virtual life sentences.

Note: Indiana allows for the suspension of any part of a sentence in most cases, however for cases related to murder they may only suspend the part of the sentence that is beyond the minimum of 45 years.

Iowa

In Iowa a life sentence is a true life sentence with no chance for parole.

All Class A felonies are sentenced to life without parole in Iowa, this means that first degree murders, kidnapping, and sexual assaults that cause injury bodily injury both come with a life sentence without parole. The only chance for an early release is a pardon from the governor.

Iowa is one of 6 states that only have true life sentences with no chance for parole.

There is currently (as of February 2021) a bill in progress that may allow for some prisoners who have served 25 years to appeal to a board which will then determine if they are eligible for release.

Kansas

For the crime of murder in Kansas the judge can apply a sentence of Hard 50, Hard 25, Death, or life without parole. The Hard 25 and 50 allow for parole after 25 and 50 years respectively with a life without parole sentence causing the prisoner to remain in jail for the rest of their life.

Kentucky

In Kentucky, a life sentence can be between 20 years and the rest of the prisoners life depending on the parole board.

For capital offences in the past Kentucky has applied a sentence of life without parole, however, a new directive (2021) states that “any inmate serving a life sentence shall not be given a deferral of longer than 120 months at the initial parole hearing and specifically directs that a serve out shall not be given at the initial hearing. Furthermore, the directive is retroactive, so that any inmate serving a life sentence that received a serve out at the initial hearing has now had the serve out converted to a 120 month deferment and will be given a parole hearing no longer than 6 months after the directive”. Inmates are eligible for their first parole hearing at 20 years.

In the state of Kentucky inmates that are serving time for violent crimes must serve at least 85% of their sentence in years. For a life sentence this means that they are eligible for parole at 20 years where their sentence goes to the parole board for review. When the board reviews a prisoners case they may choose from 3 options:

  • Serve Out – Parole is denied and the inmate must serve the remainder of their sentence. It is no longer the case that this option can be given out for an inmates first sitting with the parole board. The board must give out a 120 month deferment at most in the initial review.
  • Deferment – Parole is denied at this time, but the board sets a time of months or years where the inmate will become eligible to meet with them again.
  • Parole – The inmate is granted parole and given a conditional release.

In Kentucky you can check the parole eligibility listings to see who is eligible for parole.

Louisiana

In Louisiana, a life sentence is a determinate life sentence wherein the inmate is not eligible for parole.

Louisiana has changed its life sentence laws many times over the last century. Originally in 1926, a life sentence was 10.5 years; in 1973 it changed to a 20-year minimum; in 1976 it was changed to 40 years; and finally in 1979 parole eligibility was abolished. It is one of only 6 states where all life sentences are given without the possibility of parole (Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota).

Currently (2022) Louisiana has the highest amount of prisoners serving LWOP at 10.6% of the population.

Maine

Maine is one of 6 states where all life sentences are given without the possibility of parole.

In Maine, a life sentence will be for the rest of the inmate’s natural life unless the Governor commutes it. If a sentence is commuted, an inmate will be eligible for a parole hearing.

Maryland

In Maryland, a prisoner must serve 20 years before they are eligible for parole while serving a life sentence. A life sentence in Maryland can be between 20 years and the rest of the inmates natural life.

A recent law (January 2022) has increased the minimum time that an inmate must serve before being eligible for parole. As a result, the minimum time served before eligibility for parole will increase from 15 to 20 years. While this law increases the time before parole eligibility it also removes the ability for the governor to block parole recommendations preventing a ‘tough on crime’ governor from preventing the release of prisoners.

Massachusetts

In Massachusetts, a life sentence allows for a prisoner to be eligible for parole after serving 15 years or may have to serve the rest of their natural life in prison.

Currently, in Massachusetts, a criminal offender can be sentenced to life with parole, and life without parole. However, there is currently a bill that would allow for inmates sentenced to LWOP to apply for parole at the 25-year mark.

If an inmate is unable to get a conditional release at a parole hearing they will usually be able to obtain a new hearing every 5 years; however an earlier one can be granted.

Michigan

Michigan has an indeterminate sentence structure which means that a life sentence can have a variety of lengths from 15 years to the rest of the inmates natural life.

A mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is automatically imposed if the offender is convicted of first degree murder or placing explosives with personal injury resulting. This sentence cannot be changed unless the sentence is commuted or pardoned by the governor.

In other cases where a life sentence is imposed for less serious crimes or habitual offenders, the parole board can consider parole after the inmate has served a period of 15 calendar years.

Drug Lifer Law – In 1978 a law was enacted requiring a mandatory life imprisonment for delivery, possession, or conspiracy to possess 650 grams or more of narcotics/cocaine. This was revised in 1998 with the law changing to only those who delivered 650 grams or more and that they would become eligible for parole after 20 years. This sentence can be reduced if the inmate cooperates and helps law enforcement solve another crime.

Minnesota

Minnesota has a mandatory minimum of 30 years for those sentenced to life with convictions of murder in the first degree and some sexual offenses. This means that in Minnesota a life sentence is at minimum 30 years.

Minnesota only applies a life sentence to first-degree murder and sex crimes that are “egregious first-time and repeat offenders” (Minn. Stat. § 609.3455, subd. 2). Minnesota originally had a mandatory minimum life sentence of 17 years, but this was changed on August 1, 1989, to the current length of 30 years.

Mississippi

Mississippi has very broad terms as to what a life sentence can be, this is because they do not have established sentencing guidelines. It is up to the judge’s discretion.

This means that in Mississippi a life sentence can be 25 years, 25 years with parole, or it could be a natural life sentence where the criminal must spend the rest of their life in jail (Life Without Parole or even Juvenile Life Without Parole).

Additionally, the judge may sentence them to a discretionary sentence such as 90 years to life which can effectively be the same as life without parole as the accused will likely not live for 90+ years. Many violent crimes are ineligible for early parole.

Missouri

In Missouri a life sentence is a 30-year sentence in most cases, however, a first-degree murder conviction means that a life sentence will be for the rest of the accused natural life.

In Missouri, many of the crimes that are ineligible for parole are the ones that will get you a life sentence. These include – 1st Degree Child Molestation, Discharging of a Fire Arm in the Committal of a Crime (repeat offenders), Domestic Assault in the First Degree (repeat offenders), Drug Trafficking Offenses (repeat offenders), 1st Degree Murder, Sexual Offender (repeat offenders), and Witness Tampering.

Missouri technically allows Juvenile to serve a sentence of life without the chance of parole, however, in Missouri no one who committed a crime as a minor is serving this sentence.

Montana

For many violent crimes in Montana a life sentence will be ‘Life Without Possibility of Release’. That means that in Montana a life sentence can be for the rest of the accused’s life.

In Montana, the minimum and maximum sentence lengths are set by the legislature and district court. This means that there is a defined number of crimes that can get someone a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. These include – Homicide, Kidnapping, Sexual Abuse of Children, Aggravated Sexual Intercourse, Robbery, and Promotion of Prostitution of a Child.

Nebraska

In Nebraska, a life sentence is considered to be ‘Life Without Parole’ where the prisoner must spend the rest of their natural life in prison. Nebraska does not have any sentences where life with parole

Nebraska does allow for the sentence to be commuted to a term of years by the pardon board, which would offer a term of years in which they could then eventually parole out.

Nevada

In Nevada, someone sentenced to life in prison is generally eligible for parole after a term of 10 years. However, there are 5 crimes that can get you life without parole, these include – 1st degree murder, kidnapping with substantial bodily harm, conviction of sexual assault of a child under 16, and battery with intent to commit sexual assault.

While the most common sentence for lesser crimes is parole eligibility after 10 years, for the more serious crimes outlined above parole eligibility may happen after a period of 10, 15, 20, 50 years, life, or in very severe crimes Nevada still has the death penalty.

New Hampshire

In New Hampshire, a prisoner serving a life sentence is eligible for parole after serving a period of 18 years. The minimum length for a life sentence in New Hampshire is 18 years except in the case of 1st-degree murder, murder with a sexual component, or having 2 prior convictions for violent offenses. In these cases, New Hampshire can assign a sentence of life without the chance of parole.

In New Hampshire, a life sentence is a minimum of 18 years, but can be for the rest of the prisoners natural life.

New Jersey

In New Jersey a life sentence has parole ineligibility set to 25 years in most cases, but is set at 30 years for the crimes of aggravated manslaughter, 1st-degree kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault against a minor under 16 years. For the crime of 1st-degree murder, it is set at 35 years.

In New Jersey someone who is sentenced to a life sentence can serve a minimum of 25, 30, 35 years, or the rest of their natural life in jail.

New Mexico

In New Mexico, someone serving a life sentence with parole can be eligible for parole after a period of 30 years unless they are sentenced to life without parole.

If they are sentenced to life without parole, then they will remain in prison for the rest of their natural lives unless commuted or pardoned.

New York

Those serving life sentences in New York can be sentenced to both life with parole, and life without the opportunity for parole. What that means is that a life sentence in New York can be 20, 25, or for the rest of a prisoners natural life.

New Yorks’s sentencing chart lays out the punishments applicable for different levels of crime. Only the most serious crimes are deserving of life sentences.

Class A-1 Felonies

Murder 1 – The minimum sentence is 20 years to life imprisonment, with the maximum being life with an opportunity for parole.

Murder 2 – The minimum sentence is 20 years to life imprisonment, with the maximum being life without parole.

Other (Non-Drug) A-1 Felonies – The minimum sentence is 15-25 years, with the maximum being life imprisonment.

Class A-2 Felonies

Sexual assault crimes may also be eligible for life imprisonment. The maximum sentence length for any Class A-2 Felony remains life imprisonment, however, depending on the number of prior felonies the minimum sentence length may be.

No Prior Felonies – 10-20 years.
One Prior Felony – 15 years.
Two or More Prior Felonies – 25 years.

North Carolina

Like many other states, North Carolina uses a sentencing chart to determine the appropriate length of time for felony convictions. Since 1994, a life sentence in North Carolina is given without the opportunity for parole. Unless pardoned, a life sentence will be for the rest of a prisoner’s natural life.

Can a minor get a life sentence?

The supreme court ruled in 2011 ruled that life sentences without parole for crimes that were not intentional homicide violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ (Graham v. Florida). This ruling was eventually weakened by a 2021 vote in the newly conservative SCOTUS. Now, a judge does not need to make a finding of ‘permanent incorrigibility’ prior to assigning a minor to life without parole. At the state level the question of whether a minor can get a life sentence can be broken down into 4 broad categories:

States that have banned juvenile life without parole and have no people serving

Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Washington DC, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

States that have banned juvenile life without parole and have some people serving time

North Dakota, South Dakota, and Texas.

Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, and Rhode Island.

States that allow juvenile life without parole

Alabama, Arizona, Florida., Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee.

2 thoughts on “How Long is a Life Sentence? Shortest, Longest, and Everything In Between.”

  1. This article failed to define how much time a life sentence equates to, in regards to a federal imposed life sentence.

    Reply
    • Hi Maurice,
      This article is still under construction however a life sentence from a federal court is given without the chance for parole, so it will be for the rest of an inmates natural life unless they are able to get a pardon or win an appeal.

      Reply

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