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How Many Years Is Life In Prison Without Parole?

Life in prison without the possibility of parole is one of the harshest sentences that can be handed down in the criminal justice system. Unlike a normal life sentence, a prisoner sentenced to life without parole will never have the chance to go before a parole board to argue for an early release. They are condemned to spend the rest of their natural life behind bars.

But how exactly does this sentence work in practice? How many years can someone sentenced to life without parole expect to serve? And what kinds of crimes warrant such a severe punishment? This article will take an in-depth look at life without parole – from the legal specifics to real world case studies.

How Life Without Parole Works

A sentence of life without the possibility of parole means just what it sounds like – the convicted individual will be imprisoned for the rest of their life. Unlike a normal life sentence, parole is never an option. The only ways to leave prison are:

  • A successful appeal of the conviction or sentence
  • An executive pardon or commutation from the governor or president
  • Death

Barring these extremely rare circumstances, a prisoner sentenced to life without parole can expect to die in prison. They will never get the chance to stand in front of a parole board and make their case for release.

H2: Length of Sentence

So just how many years can someone sentenced to life without parole expect to serve? The answer depends on the age of the prisoner at sentencing and their life expectancy.

For example, a 20 year old sentenced to life without parole could reasonably expect to spend 50+ years in prison before dying. On the other hand, a 70 year old would likely spend 10-15 years imprisoned. The average life expectancy in the U.S. is around 79 years, so most healthy adult offenders can anticipate decades in prison.

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Prisoners do age faster on average than people outside, due to stresses, poor healthcare, and violence. But modern geriatric care in prisons is allowing more lifers to reach old age. For instance, the “Angola 3” of Louisiana’s Angola prison were locked up in their late 20s in the 1970s and are still alive in their late 70s and mid 80s.

H2: Eligible Crimes

Life without parole is handed down for only the most serious violent crimes like murder, rape, and child molestation. The vast majority of lifers were convicted of homicide. Other crimes that can warrant life without parole include:

  • Kidnapping
  • Major drug trafficking offenses
  • Severe child abuse
  • Repeat serious violent offenses
  • Treason
  • Terrorism
  • Human trafficking
  • Hate crimes

Non-violent crimes like theft or fraud do not result in parole-less life sentences. A first time offender convicted of a less serious crime like manslaughter would also not face this sentence. It is reserved for the “worst of the worst” violent repeat offenders.

Some key factors judges consider when imposing life without parole are:

  • Prior criminal history
  • Use of a weapon
  • Cruelty and callousness
  • Number of victims
  • Lack of remorse

So in summary, life without parole is not handed down for minor crimes. Only violent habitual offenders even face the possibility of perpetual imprisonment.

Real Life Cases

To understand life without parole sentences in practice, here are details on two infamous real life examples:

H3: Charles Manson

  • Leader of the notorious “Manson Family” cult
  • Masterminded the brutal 1969 murders of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and 6 others
  • Sentenced to death in 1971 along with 3 followers
  • After CA abolished death penalty in 1972, his sentence was commuted to life with the possibility of parole
  • Manson had his first parole hearing in 1978 and was denied release
  • Continued to have parole hearings every 2-3 years and was denied each time
  • Died of natural causes in prison in 2017 at age 83 after nearly 50 years behind bars

H3: John Wayne Gacy

  • Dubbed the “Killer Clown”, raped and murdered 33 boys and young men in the 1970s
  • Sentenced to death for 12 of the murders in 1980
  • After Illinois abolished death penalty in 2011, he was resentenced to natural life without parole
  • Remained in prison until his execution by lethal injection in 1994 at age 52
  • His final words were “Kiss my ass.”

Both Manson and Gacy were originally sentenced to death for their heinous crimes. But after capital punishment was abolished in their states, their sentences were changed to life without the possibility of parole. Manson ended up spending nearly 50 years in prison before dying of natural causes. Gacy was executed after 14 years on death row.

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Pros and Cons of Life Without Parole

Like any criminal justice policy, life without parole sentences have both advantages and drawbacks:


  • Keeps the most dangerous criminals permanently separated from society
  • Provides justice and closure for victims and families
  • Eliminates the risks involved in paroling violent felons
  • Gives prosecutors leverage in plea bargaining
  • Is a constitutional alternative to the death penalty


  • Removes any incentive for rehabilitation
  • Risks locking up some wrongfully convicted inmates forever
  • Can be more expensive than a limited life sentence
  • Amounts to “death by incarceration” in slow motion
  • Is arguably unethical and inhumane

There are good faith arguments on both sides of this issue. But the intended purpose of life without parole is keeping irredeemable violent criminals off the streets for good.

Table of Major Crimes and Life Without Parole Sentences

Here is a table summarizing some of the highest profile violent crimes that resulted in life without parole sentences over the past 30 years:

DefendantYearCrimeSentenceTime Served
Dylann Roof2015Murder of 9 churchgoers in racially motivated shootingLife without parole7 years (ongoing)
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev2015Boston Marathon bombing that killed 3 and injured 100s6 life sentences without parole7 years (ongoing)
Larry Nassar2017Serial sexual abuse of over 150 young female gymnasts60 years without parole5 years (ongoing)
Nikolas Cruz2018Murder of 17 in shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas HSLife without parole4 years (ongoing)
Joseph DeAngelo2020“Golden State Killer” serial murderer and rapist11 consecutive life sentences without parole2 years (ongoing)

This table illustrates the sheer magnitude of crimes it takes to warrant perpetual imprisonment. All involved multiple murders, terror attacks, serial sexual abuse, or mass casualties. Life without parole is not handed down for lesser offenses.

Quotes on Life Without Parole Sentences

Here are quotes on life imprisonment without the possibility of parole from different perspectives:

“Life without parole is a sentence to die in prison. It replaces one death sentence with another.” – Naneen Karraker, families against mandatory minimums

“Life without parole is the most severe penalty that may be imposed in America today. It is a sentence to die in prison.” – Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative

“Criminals who commit heinous acts don’t deserve the luxury of living out their years in prison. Life without parole allows our justice system to keep them off our streets forever.” – Erika Harold, Attorney General of Illinois

“Sending a prisoner away for life without parole is giving up on them completely. It denies any possibility of reform and rehabilitation.” – Pat Nolan, Prison Fellowship

“Life without parole sentences provide closure to victims. Unlike the death penalty, there are no endless appeals. Dangerous criminals are behind bars for good.” – Don Siegelman, former Governor of Alabama

These quotes highlight the main arguments around life without parole as our most severe form of punishment. Opponents criticize it as inhumane while supporters argue it keeps society safe.

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Here are answers to 5 of the most common questions about life sentences without the possibility of parole:

How many years is life in prison without parole?

Life without parole means imprisonment for the rest of the inmate’s natural life. Prisoners can expect to serve at least 25-50 years depending on age. There is no set number of years. The only ways out are a successful appeal, pardon, or death.

What crimes get life without parole?

Life without parole is reserved for the worst violent crimes like murder, rape, child abuse, major drug trafficking, and terrorism. Repeat serious offenders may also face this sentence. Minor and non-violent crimes do not result in life without parole.

Is life without parole cruel and unusual punishment?

The US Supreme Court has upheld life without parole as constitutional, even for juvenile offenders. They ruled it is not cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment when applied to homicide and other severe crimes.

How is life without parole different than the death penalty?

Life without parole sentences keep violent criminals in prison for life instead of executing them. Both are meant to permanently remove the convict from society but life without parole gives the opportunity to overturn wrongful convictions.

Can someone with life without parole get out of prison?

It is extremely rare but possible. The only ways out are a successful appeal, an executive pardon or commutation, or death. Unlike regular life sentences, parole is never an option for “life means life” prisoners.


Life in prison without the possibility of parole is an irrevocable punishment reserved for the worst violent criminal offenders. Prisoners are condemned to live out their remaining years behind bars until death. While its severity makes it controversial, the purpose is keeping society safe from those who commit grievous crimes. This sentence replaces the need for capital punishment while still providing permanent protection and just punishment. However, time will tell if our society continues to see merit in imprisoning people until they die. The continued evolution of criminal justice reform may one day render life without parole obsolete. But for now, it remains the law’s harshest sentence for its most unforgivable crimes.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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