Growth in the lifer population has helped keep the prison population high.


The prison population had quintupled to its current level of roughly 10,000 by 1993. One might have expected the prison population to begin falling as crime rates fell through the 90s and into this century. As MassInc has pointed out, commitments to state prison have, in fact, fallen by roughly 1/3 since 1993. Yet, the prison population has remained fairly stable since 1993, implying that average lengths of stay have increased by roughly 1/3.

The population committed for the most serious crimes – carrying life sentences or sentences longer than 20 years — has continued to rise steadily, more than doubling to almost 30% of the prison population, and so explaining roughly half of the sentence length increase inferred by MassInc. (If this segment of the population had not grown, the population would be 16% lower and our inferred average length of stay would be proportionately lower.)

The doubling of the life-sentenced population, from 1,027 in 1993 to 2,018 in 2015, is not primarily due to recent legislative action. Among those doing life, 91% are doing the traditional mandatory minimum of life for murder (with or without parole, depending on the degree of murder). The youthful offender law of 1996 may have added several dozen life inmates to state prison: The 2,018 life inmates in state prison include 68 juvenile offenders that were sentenced as adults for first degree murder some of whom might not have been so sentenced under previous law; there may be several dozen more post-1996 juveniles serving second degree murder sentences. The habitual offender law may affect some of the non-murder life sentences, but the 2012 adjustments to that mandatory have not been in place long enough to apply to many cases (the adjustments apply only to crimes committed after its effective date). There are no other mandatory sentences with minimum penalties over 15 years, so the growth in the 20+ year category (from 247 to 829) seems unlikely to have been affected by legislative action.

The growth in the life/long population is hard to explain. The growth has been steady for the past 40 years. It could be going up as a result of multiple factors that could theoretically include case clearance rates, prosecutorial toughness in plea-bargaining in homicide cases, younger offenders, prisoner life expectancy improvements and/or parole board strictness. The growth is hard to explain with reference to crime per se as it appears that murder has ticked all the way back down to its 1965 level. Serious assaults do remain high and improved medical care may be masking the gravity of continuing assaultive crime.

Since 1993, the legislature has continued to enact penalty enhancements, most notably the 1993 Truth in Sentencing law, which increased the average time to earliest parole eligibility for state prisoners by 25% from 4 years to 5 years. (See the Sentencing Commission’s analysis of truth in sentencing at Table 26 (change in traditional sentence length). This increase is relevant only for those inmates that actually seek and are suitable for parole (maximum sentences did not increase). Under 1/3 of inmates leave with parole supervision (see Prison Population Trends 2014, page 37), so the actual average sentence length increase resulting from Truth in Sentencing is a fraction of 25%. There are a number of other moving parts in the Truth in Sentencing law. For example, the typical gap between earliest parole eligibility and maximum sentence in state prison has been reduced. This means that inmates have less incentive to seek parole under Truth in Sentencing and that may be another dynamic through which Truth in Sentencing increased average time served. It isn’t feasible to confidently estimate the net impact of Truth in Sentencing on average state prison time served.

It does seem likely that between the lifer growth and Truth in Sentencing, all other legislative and non-legislative changes over the past 20 years are left with a relatively small residual change in average time served to explain. Of course, mandatory minimums already on the books had a continuing impact on sentence length.

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Inmates serving Long Sentences in State Prison Population: 1973 - 2015

TotalYears 20+LifeDeathLong (Life, Death, Years 20+) as % of Total
From DOC Reports

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

4 replies on “Growth in the lifer population has helped keep the prison population high.”

  1. I suggest that the higher incarceration rate is the reason for the lowest murder rate since 1965. In addition, the changes in technolgy, DNA, computerization, cameras, college educated officers and fingerprints have all aided society in making us safer and putting the right people in prison. Don’t be fooling with years of succesful legislation that has eliminated the crime wave and victimizes us all.

    1. At this point, right or wrong, there is no active discussion about modifying the penalties for “crimes against the person” — rape, robbery, murder — the traditional felonies that carry the penalty of up to life in prison.

  2. Extensive research shows that drops in crime in most developed countries over the past 40 years including here has more to do with video gaming keeping youth off the streets, than harsh policing or sentencing. In fairness, video gaming has been most prevalent over the last 3 decades, but its impact has been profound.
    Easy access to firearms has not helped with murder statistics, so gun control remains a nationwide problem as the New York Times in its first front page editorial since 1920 makes abundantly clear today (Dec. 5, 2015).
    One has to wonder, however, about a society that treats 14-year-olds as adults in sentencing. No parent of a 14-year-old would consider them adult and certainly alcohol laws see adulthood as 21. Why then do we punish children as adults? The Supreme Court recently ruled against this – why do we maintain this law?
    Secondly, a society that has life without parole is a society that believes incarceration doesn’t work. That people cannot change, cannot reform. It goes against every faith doctrine. The greatest men of our times: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X (who was jailed at Norfolk, MA), Nelson Mandela, etc. all did jail time. Mandela was head of Umkhonto we Sizwe which killed hundreds of people. The South African government wanted the death penalty for him, but instead he was sentenced to life without parole. If he was jailed in the United States – in Massachusetts – he would have died in prison.
    Look at how the lives and experiences of those men helped give templates for good societal conduct and the transformative power of forgiveness. The endless punishment we give now does not promote justice, it promotes a desire for perpetual revenge, the most base of human instincts. It promotes an ignorance of every religious doctrine that tells us people can change, they can be healed, they can transform.
    I’d ask that in Massachusetts, a leader in so many areas, that we lead too in criminal justice reform. I know how hard you work, Senator Brownsberger and I am inspired by this initiative of the Governor’s and those who will bring so much experience, knowledge and care to this very important work.

    1. Thank you, Charlene, for speaking out. This is my top personal priority. I am hopeful that we will make progress — in small and large ways — over the years to come. It won’t be fast enough, but we will stay on it.

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