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What Is a Life Sentence? - Definition, Length & Statistics

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  • 0:01 Definition of a Life Sentence
  • 0:32 Length of a Life Sentence
  • 1:16 Statistics
  • 1:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

Learn what constitutes a life sentence. Review the definition of life sentences, the length of life sentences, and what statistics demonstrate about these terms.

Definition of a Life Sentence

Have you ever heard the phrase, 'Throw the book at him?' This means that the judge will impose a severe sentence on an individual for committing a crime. There is no other penalty more severe than a life sentence, except for the death penalty.

A life sentence is a prison term that one receives after a judge imposes a sentence. As its name implies, an offender who is given a life sentence is sentenced to spend the rest of their life in a prison cell as a punishment for committing a crime. A life sentence is typically reserved for the most serious of crimes, such as murder, manslaughter, or rape.

Length of a Life Sentence

A life sentence is a prison term that typically lasts for one's lifetime. However, an individual may be able to receive a sentence that could potentially allow them to be released at some point. For example, a judge may impose a sentence of 30 years to life with a chance of parole. This means that after the offender serves the first 30 years of the life sentence, the offender could possibly have the opportunity to get out of prison on parole to serve the remaining years of the sentence. Parole is court-supervised release, so the court would oversee the remaining years when the offender gets out of prison; the court would have strict monitoring over the offender.

Statistics

The United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics studied life sentences in state courts in 2004. According to the report the Bureau issued, life sentences were rare in state courts. Moreover, the report indicated that there were approximately 8,400 individuals convicted of murder or manslaughter in 2004. Out of this number, the statistics demonstrated that 20.4% received a sentence of life in prison.

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