- What is the length of a life sentence?
- What does a life sentence mean?
- How Long is a Life Sentence – A State by State Overview
- Can a minor get a life sentence?
- States that have banned juvenile life without parole and have no people serving
- States that have banned juvenile life without parole and have some people serving time
- States that allow juvenile life without parole from a legal standpoint but have no people serving time
- States that allow juvenile life without parole
In some states or jurisdictions, 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, a parole board will decide whether the offender should be released on parole or sent back to prison.
*Note – Some states such as California 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.
- Petition the state governor for a commutation of the sentence
- File an appeal to overturn the sentence
- 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).
What is the shortest life sentence?
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.
How Long is a Life Sentence – A State by State Overview
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 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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Producting Meth – 2 years to life
- Voluntary Mansalughter – 15 years to life
- Aggravated batter – 15 years to life
The judge will hand out a minimum amount of time that you must spend in prison during sentencing.
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 and 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.
States that allow juvenile life without parole from a legal standpoint but have no people serving time
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.