Life Sentences in the Federal Criminal Justice System


2016 Recidivism Study Overview

(Published February 2015)   Life imprisonment sentences are rare in the federal criminal justice system. Virtually all offenders convicted of a federal crime are released from prison eventually and return to society or, in the case of illegal aliens, are deported to their country of origin. Yet in fiscal year 2013 federal judges imposed a sentence of life imprisonment without parole on 153 offenders. Another 168 offenders received a sentence of a specific term of years that was so long it had the practical effect of being a life sentence. Although together these offenders represent only 0.4 percent of all offenders sentenced that year, this type of sentence sets them apart from the rest of the offender population.

This report examines life sentences in the federal system and the offenders on whom this punishment is imposed.

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Key Findings

The key findings of the Commission’s study are:

  • In fiscal year 2013, the courts imposed a sentence of life imprisonment in 153 cases.

  • The number of these cases in prior years has varied, with the highest number of life sentences having been imposed in fiscal year 2009, when the courts sentenced 280 offenders to life imprisonment.

  • As of January 2015, there were 4,436 prisoners incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons serving a life imprisonment sentence.

  • The most common offense type for which a life imprisonment sentence was imposed in fiscal year 2013 was drug trafficking (64 cases).

  • The next most common offenses in which life imprisonment was imposed were firearms offenses (27 cases), murder (19 cases), and extortion and racketeering offenses (16 cases).