More prisoners today are serving life terms than ever before — 140,610 out of 2.3 million inmates being held in jails and prisons across the country — under tough mandatory minimum-sentencing laws and the declining use of parole for eligible convicts, according to a report released Wednesday by the Sentencing Project, a group that calls for the elimination of life sentences without parole. The report tracks the increase in life sentences from 1984, when the number of inmates serving life terms was 34,000.
A number of factors are driving the increase in the number of people serving life sentences, but an increase in the violent crime rate is not one of them. A number of policies - "three-strikes," determinate sentencing, juvenile waivers - all have an underlying common denominator - the politics of "get tough" on crime.
One of the problems with this approach is that it is disconnected from effective crime control. The politics of incarceration have more to do with appearing to be tough on crime. Another problem is the cost of this "get tough" policy. Not only are we locking up more people, be we are keeping them incarcerated for longer periods of time. Add this this the fact that older prisoners tend to have health issues and you have the ingredients for increased spending in coming decades.
Is this how we want to spend our tax dollars?
Note - Idaho has 523 inmates serving a life sentence (8.3% of total prison population), with 102 serving life without parole (1.6% of the total prison population). There are 21 juveniles serving life and four serving life without parole sentences, which is below the national average.