Long Sentences by the Numbers

Launched by the Council in Spring 2022, the Task Force on Long Sentences is assessing our nation’s use of long prison terms and formulating recommendations to advance safety and justice. This series of charts serves as a foundation for the deliberations of the group, a diverse set of experts from varied sectors of the criminal justice field and across the ideological spectrum.

The data below address three fundamental questions. Each provides a different perspective on the nature and extent of long prison sentences, which the Task Force defines as a court-imposed prison term of 10 years or more, independent of the time people actually serve.

  • Admissions: What are the number and share of people admitted with a long prison sentence? Admissions data show changes in the frequency with which courts impose long sentences.
  • Population: What is the size of the prison population serving long sentences, and what share of the total population do these individuals represent? Prison population data, based on a snapshot of people incarcerated at a moment in time (typically at year’s end), reveal how many people behind bars are serving long sentences.
  • Releases: What are the number and share of people released from prison after serving a long sentence and how much time did they actually serve? Every jurisdiction has statutes and policies such as discretionary parole and credits for good behavior that permit people to be released prior to serving their maximum sentence. Release data enable us to discern how many people are released after having served 10 or more years, independent of the upper limit of their sentences.

The charts listed below reflect data from varying combinations of up to 29 state prison systems submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice's National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP) from 2005 through 2019. Council researchers selected the states and time period because they offered the most complete and consistent set of relevant national-level data to describe basic trends in long sentences. For each analysis, the states selected account for 51% to 75% of the U.S. population in 2019. The analyses do not include data from the federal criminal justice system.

Key Takeaways

  • People with long sentences account for a relatively small share of state prison admissions and releases, but because they serve long periods, their numbers stack up over time. In 2019, 17% of people admitted to prison were sentenced to 10 years or more, and 3% of those released had served 10 years or more. At year-end, 57% of people in prison were serving a long prison sentence, up from 46% in 2005.
  • The length of time served by people sentenced to 10 years or more has grown. Between 2005 and 2019, the average amount of time served by this group increased from 9.7 years to 15.5 years.
  • The share of people convicted of a violent crime who received long sentences grew from 7% in 2005 to 10% in 2019. The percentage of people convicted of property and drug offenses who received long sentences remained stable, at 3% and 2%, respectively.
  • The shares of Black and White people receiving long sentences have grown over time and the gap between those shares has widened, from 1 percentage point in 2005 to 4 percentage points in 2019. When accounting for conviction offenses, Black people are more likely to receive long sentences for violent crimes while White people are for some property crimes. White people convicted of drug crimes were more likely than Black people to get a long sentence in 2005 but less likely by 2019.
  • Compared to other age groups, people aged 55 and over are the fastest-growing age group serving long sentences. Between 2005 and 2019, the share of people serving long sentences who were aged 55 and over grew from 8% to 20%.
  • Men are more likely than women to receive and serve a long sentence. On average, men are about 72% more likely to receive a long sentence and over three times more likely to serve a long sentence than women, mostly because men are convicted of more serious, violent crimes. Greater shares of both men (up 4%) and women (up 3%) received sentences of 10 years or more in 2019 than in 2005.

Long Sentences by Admissions

Overall Admissions

In 2019, 17% of all people admitted to state prisons were sentenced to a term of 10 years or more. Half of prison admissions were for less than five years.

Just over half (52%) of those admitted to prison with a long sentence were sentenced to 10 to 24.9 years. The other half received a sentence of 25 years or more (28%) or a sentence of life, life without parole (LWOP), or a death sentence (21%).

Percent of People Admitted to Prison by Sentence Length, 2019

Long Sentence Admissions

The number of people admitted to serve a long sentence in state prisons increased between 2005 and 2009, before leveling off for the next five years and then declining. The share of long-sentence admissions grew from 13% to 17% over the period, driven not by a rise in the imposition of long sentences but by a 26% decrease in shorter sentences—those less than 10 years.

Number and Share of People Admitted with a Long Sentence

Long Sentences Behind Bars

People in Prison Serving Long Sentences

Between 2005 and 2019, the number of people serving long sentences in state prisons grew slightly before leveling off, while the share of incarcerated people serving time for sentences of 10 years or more increased steadily. In 2005, people serving long sentences accounted for 46% of the prison population. By 2019, that proportion had grown to 57%. This increase is more substantial than the growth of people admitted to prison with long sentences because of the mathematical “stacking effect.” The stacking effect occurs when people remain behind bars for long periods of time, causing a cumulative impact on the prison population even when annual admissions are small, remain stable, or decline.

Number and Share of People Serving 10+ Years

Long Sentences by Release

States vary widely in laws and policies that determine how much of a maximum prison sentence a person serves behind bars. The chief factors governing when someone is released from prison include the severity of the underlying offense (or offenses), one’s prior criminal record, credits earned for good conduct and participation in rehabilitative programming, the availability of discretionary parole release, and assessment of the likelihood of success on post-prison supervision.

The time served by people released in a particular year—the measure used here—is the most common way to gauge prison length of stay. But that measure may underrepresent people serving longer sentences, because those individuals are less likely to be released in a given year. For instance, using sophisticated statistical analysis, The Pew Charitable Trusts estimated that people released from prison in 2009 for violent offenses had served an average of 4.8 years, but that those in prison that year for violent offenses could expect to serve 7.1 years. The difference was more pronounced in murder cases: 2009 releases had served 14 years but the “expected time served” was 38 years. At the same time, federally sponsored research indicates that when prison populations are decreasing, as they have in the U.S. since 2009, exit-cohort estimates may overstate time served.

People Released After Serving Long Sentences

Apart from those serving life without parole or sentences that exceed people’s natural life span, the vast majority of people issued a long sentence will ultimately be released. The share of people released from prison who had served 10 years or more is small, but it has grown over time. Between 2005 and 2019, the share of people who had served more than 10 years at release increased by 58%.

Number and Share of People Released After Serving Long Sentences

Length of Time Served

The average (mean) number of years served by people receiving sentences of 10 years or more increased by 60% over time, from 9.7 years in 2005 to 15.5 years in 2019.

Average Time Served by People Sentenced to 10+ Years

Post-Release Supervision

In 2019, approximately 7 out of 10 people released from prison after serving long sentences were subject to a parole term or some other form of mandatory post-release supervision. The share of people subject to no supervision (unconditional release) after serving a long sentence decreased slightly over time, from 23% in 2005 to 19% in 2019. Most of the unconditional releases involve people who have “maxed out” their sentences, or served every day of the maximum sentence. These individuals are no longer subject to correctional control and are unlikely to receive reentry supervision or support.

Share of Long Sentence Releases by Supervision Type

Long Sentences by Offense

Offense Types

More than half of the people admitted to prison with a long sentence in 2019 were convicted of a violent offense, while 16% were convicted of drug crimes, which include possession, distribution, and trafficking. Another 13% were sentenced for public order offenses, which vary widely and include firearms violations, habitual driving under the influence, prostitution, and disorderly conduct.

Long Sentence Admission Cohort Offense Types, 2019

Admissions by Offense Type

The share of people convicted of a violent crime who received long sentences has increased over time, from 7% in 2005 to 10% in 2019. The percentage of people convicted of drug and property offenses who received long sentences remained stable over that time period, at 3% and 2%, respectively.

Share of Newly Admitted People Receiving Long Sentences by Offense Type

Long Sentences by Most Serious Offense

From 2005 to 2019, the share of people receiving long sentences increased for all offense types except robbery. The biggest absolute increase was for rape and sexual assault; people sentenced for those crimes were 11 percentage points more likely to receive a long sentence in 2019 than in 2005. Most people convicted of murder received a sentence of 10 years or more. Roughly one in 10 people convicted of drug violations, including all trafficking, manufacturing, distribution, and possession offenses, received a long sentence in both 2005 and 2019.

Share of Newly Admitted People Sentenced to 10+ Years by Most Serious Conviction Offense

Though murder defendants were the most likely to receive a long sentence, drug offenses accounted for the largest share of those admitted to prison to serve 10 or more years. Cumulatively across the 15-year study period, drug cases accounted for 21% of total long-sentence admissions, while rape/sexual assault cases accounted for 14%, robbery 13%, and murder/negligent manslaughter and aggravated assault cases each accounted for 12%. Across the study period, at year-end an average of nearly three quarters (73%) of people in prison for long sentences were convicted of violent offenses, including 24% for murder/negligent manslaughter, 18% for rape/sexual assault, 16% for robbery, 12% for aggravated assault, and 11% for drug violations.

Long Sentences by Race

Admissions by Race

The shares of Black and White people receiving long sentences to state prison have grown over time - and the gap between those shares has widened, from 1 percentage point in 2005 to 4 percentage points in 2019. (See below for data regarding sentences by offense type.)

Share of Newly Admitted People Sentenced to 10+ Years by Race

Releases by Race

Trends in the share of Black and White people who were released after serving a prison term of 10 years or more are similar to those for admissions. The difference in the share of Black versus White people who served a long sentence increased from 1 percentage point to 2.4 percent points, or 143%, from 2005 to 2019. In 2019, Black people were twice as likely as White people to have been released from prison after serving a long sentence, not adjusting for conviction offenses, criminal histories, or other factors that influence sentencing and release decisions.

Share of Released People Who Served 10+ Years by Race

Comparisons by Race and Offense

Examining racial differences in sentencing reveals little change in long sentence admissions among the White and Black populations, not adjusting for offense type, criminal history, or other factors that influence sentencing. In 2005 and 2019, a higher percentage of Black individuals were admitted to prison for serious offenses that make up a larger proportion of the long-sentenced population. In 2019, for example, 94% of Black individuals convicted of murder received a sentence of 10 years or more, compared to 91% of White individuals. From 2005 to 2019, the percentages of both Black and White people sentenced to 10 years or more for murder increased, and the differences between those shares slightly narrowed across the time period.

People Admitted to Prison by Offense and Race, 2005 and 2019

Long Sentences by Sex

Admissions by Sex

While the number of men and women receiving long state prison sentences has remained stable, greater shares of both sexes received sentences of 10 years or more over the study period. When compared to women, men were approximately 72% more likely to receive a long sentence, not adjusting for offense type, criminal history, or other factors that influence sentencing.

Long Sentence Admissions by Sex

Admissions by Sex and Offense Type

Far more men than women are convicted of violent crimes. In 2019, 94% of people who received a long sentence for a violent offense were men. Greater shares of women are convicted and admitted to prison on long sentences for drug offenses (16%) and property crimes (12%) than for violent offenses (6%).

People Sentenced to 10+ Years by Offense Type and Sex, 2019

Long Sentences by Age

One third of people admitted to state prison with a long sentence are between 25 and 34 years old. In recent years, the long-sentenced population between ages 18 to 24 years old declined, from a high of 28% of long sentence admissions in 2008 to 18% in 2019, a drop of 35%. Admissions for those aged 55 and older more than doubled (up 128%) from 2005 to 2019.

The prison population serving long sentences aged over the study period as people “stacked up” over time. The share of people 55 years and over serving long sentences more than doubled from 2005 to 2019, from 8% to 19%. Other age groups remained stable over the study period, including people between the ages of 35 and 44 years old, who make up approximately one third of the population serving long sentences.

Long Sentence Admissions, Population, and Releases by Age Group