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Number of prison 'lifers' skyrockets over 30 years

| Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, 7:30 p.m.

MIAMI — The number of prisoners serving life terms in the United States has more than quadrupled since 1984, and so-called lifers now account for one in nine people behind bars, according to a report released on Wednesday by the Sentencing Project.

The Washington-based research and advocacy group, which has long pushed for criminal justice reforms, said in the report that nearly 160,000 people were serving life sentences in 2012, or 10.6 percent of the 1.5 million inmates being held in state and federal prisons.

“Life sentences have increased steadily over the years beginning with the first documented national census of this population in 1984,” the report said, adding that the total was up nearly 12 percent since 2008.

Nonwhites make up nearly two-thirds of the population serving life sentences, with blacks accounting for nearly half, the report said.

The Sentencing Project and other groups, including the London-based International Center for Prison Studies, say the United States leads the world in the percentage of its population behind bars.

In addition to the overall increase in the number of inmates serving life sentences during the years, the report said there had been a 300 percent rise in the number of prisoners serving life without parole since 1984.

That same population — of lifers condemned to sentences without parole — swelled to nearly 50,000 prisoners last year, and the number has increased more than 22 percent just since 2008.

The reasons cited in the report include what it called the growing popularity of life sentences in the United States since a ban on the death penalty that was in place from 1972 to 1976.

Mandatory minimum sentencing and related laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s, a time of rising crime and drug violence, are factors, it said.

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