Women represent only 3 percent prison inmates sentenced to life in prison but they represent a fast-growing segment of the lifer population, according to a study released by the Sentencing Project
Nationwide one of every 15 women in prison — nearly 7,000 women — is serving a life or virtual life sentence.
One-third of them have no chance for parole, so their prospects for release are highly improbable. The number of women serving life sentences has grown dramatically despite declining rates of violent crime among women.
Trends in life sentences for women
Men comprise the overwhelming proportion of people in prison for life; 97% of lifers are men. But the number of women serving life sentences is rising more quickly than it is for men.
The Sentencing Project collected life-imprisonment figures by gender in 2008 and 2016. We find that during this nine-year period the number of women serving life sentences increased by 20%, compared to 15% for men.
The rise in life imprisonment among women has also been far more rapid than the overall prison population increase among women for violent offenses.
Between 2008 and 2016 there was a 2% increase in the number of imprisoned women for a violent crime, but a 20% increase in the number of women serving a life sentence. When analysis is limited to life-without-parole sentences, we see that the number of women serving these sentences increased by 41% compared to 29% for men.
Nearly 300 women were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime that brought about their life sentence.
Half of these women are locked in prison in just three states: California (80), Georgia, (23) and Texas (42).
The circumstances that lead women to commit violent crimes are often complicated by a history of sexual and/or physical trauma.
Compared to men, women serving life sentences report higher levels of psychiatric disorders, histories of physical and sexual violence, and previous suicide attempts.
Over one third of women serving life sentences have attempted suicide.
In a national survey conducted by The Sentencing Project of people serving life without parole for offenses committed as youth, we found that prior to incarceration, 80% of female respondents had experienced physical abuse, 77% sexual abuse, and 84% witnessed violence at home. Some research suggests that the crimes leading to a life sentence for a woman may be in response to intimate partner victimization.
One study of 42 survivors of intimate partner abuse convicted of murder in California found that all but two had received life sentences: six were sentenced to life without parole, and the remaining 34 received life sentences with minimums that ranged from 7-15 years, but at the time of the study all these women had already served 25 years.
Additionally, interview data from 99 women serving life sentences showed that 17% had been convicted of killing their former or current intimate partner, though it was unclear if the murder was related to intimate partner violence.
Cyntoia Brown, a victim of sex trafficking, killed a man who solicited her for sex when she was 16.
A judge sentenced Brown to life prison. Corrections officials ordered her to wait at least 51 years before her first parole hearing. Her case earned national attention after a series of Hollywood celebrities elevated her story through social media.
Public empathy for the trauma of her life experience and her allegations of self defense helped influence Tennessee Governor William Haslam to grant her a commutation of sentence in 2018. In the absence of high-profile cases such as this, commutations are exceedingly rare.
The Sentencing Project’s Campaign to End Life Imprisonment can be reached at 1705 DeSales Street NW, 8th Floor • Washington, D.C. 20036 or at endlifeimprisonment.org
The Sentencing Project invites you to a Women and Life Imprisonment Webinar on Thursday, July 11th at 1pm ET.
Panelists include Ashley Nellis of The Sentencing Project, Judy Henderson of the: National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls Fellow and Romarilyn Ralston of Project Rebound