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Life Sentences in the Federal Justice System

A recent report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission looks at the relatively rare sentence of life imprisonment in the federal justice system.

As of January 2015, 4,436 prisoners were serving a life imprisonment sentence in a federal prison. The report “Life Sentences in the Federal System,” focusses on 2013 data. In that year, federal judges imposed a sentence of life imprisonment without parole on 153 offenders. Another 168 offenders received a sentence so long, in term of years, that it had the practical effect of being a life sentence. Together these offenders represent just 0.4 percent of federal offenders sentenced in 2013.

If sentences of life imprisonment are rare in the federal system, it may be because only four of the more than 150 sentencing guidelines provide for this punishment —and then only for certain acts or for classes of offenders, particularly career offenders. In virtually all of the cases in which a life sentence has been imposed, one or more persons died as a result of the criminal enterprise, according to the Sentencing Commission report.

Drug trafficking is the most common offense in which a life imprisonment sentence is imposed, usually where death or serious bodily injury resulted from the use of the drug or where the defendant had been convicted previously of a drug trafficking offense. Very large quantities of drugs and an offender’s prior criminal record also may trigger a life sentence. These types of cases accounted for 41.8 percent of all life imprisonment cases in 2013, less than one-third of one percent of all drug trafficking cases that year.

Of the offenders sentenced for life, 34.2 percent were assigned to the highest criminal history category under the sentencing guidelines, 50 percent to the highest three categories. These offenders also were more likely to have acted as leaders during the offense, and were more likely to have used a weapon.

The USSC report also looked at cases where sentences were so long they became, in effect, life sentences—a sentence length of 470 months or longer was used in this analysis. These de facto life imprisonment sentences were generally imposed in firearms cases, child pornography cases, drug trafficking and sex abuse. De facto life sentence offenders were more likely to have had an aggravating role in the offense, had more serious criminal histories than federal offenders generally, and were far more likely to have used a weapon in connection with their offense. As of January 2015, there were 1,983 offenders in the BOP system serving a sentence of incarceration of 470 months or longer —1.1 percent of all federally sentenced offenders.

Related Topics: U.S. Sentencing Commission