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How Many Years is Life in Prison?

Life imprisonment is a sentence of incarceration for a defendant’s entire natural life. Unlike other prison sentences that have a definite end date, a life sentence means the convicted individual will remain imprisoned until death, with very limited chances of parole or early release. Life sentences are typically given for the most serious crimes like murder, rape, terrorism, and treason.

The length of a life sentence varies between jurisdictions and is dependent on life expectancy and parole eligibility. In most countries, a life term does not necessarily mean dying in prison – there is usually the possibility of parole after a minimum number of years served. However, the number of years that must be served before parole eligibility differs significantly.

How Long is a Life Sentence in the United States?

Federal Life Sentences

At the federal level in the United States, a life sentence typically means imprisonment for the remainder of the convict’s natural life. There is no parole available in the federal system, except in extremely rare cases. The vast majority of federal lifers will never be released from prison.

Federal life sentences are imposed for crimes such as murder, espionage, large-scale drug trafficking, sex crimes involving minors, and attempting to kill a United States President. The sentence can be imposed with or without the possibility of release; however, release is only granted in very limited circumstances by the President.

State Life Sentences

In the state systems, the definition of a life sentence is less consistent than under federal law. State laws vary widely in terms of how long a defendant must serve before becoming eligible for parole.

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Some states have abolished parole altogether, which means a life sentence mandates dying in prison unless an appeal/retrial overturns the conviction. States with no parole include Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and West Virginia. However, governors and state boards can still grant clemency in these states.

Other states allow parole eligibility after a minimum time served, often 25 years. For example, a “life sentence with the possibility of parole after 25 years” means the defendant must serve at least 25 years before applying for release. However, parole is not guaranteed after the minimum is served. Some other states have a “life sentence with parole eligibility after 15 years,” or “after 30 years.” The amount of time served before parole eligibility depends on each state’s sentencing guidelines.

Overall, in states with parole, a life sentence generally means at least 15-30 years imprisonment, although good behavior can reduce the minimum time by a couple years in some instances.

How Long Do Lifers Actually Serve on Average?

While state laws define the minimum years before parole review, the actual time served by lifers is most illuminating. The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice nonprofit, reports that lifers who are granted parole in the United States serve an average of 29 years before release.

However, less than one-third of U.S. lifers are actually paroled. The majority end up serving 40 years or more behind bars before they die.

A key study from the University of Pennsylvania examined the time served of people sentenced to life in prison in three states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana). The findings showed:

  • Michigan lifers served an average of 29.2 years before parole release.
  • Pennsylvania lifers served an average of 29 years before parole release.
  • Louisiana lifers served an average of 36.6 years before parole release.
  • Overall, the national average time served for paroled lifers was 29 years.
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The study revealed that even among lifers who get paroled, very few are released soon after their minimum eligibility date. Most end up serving decades beyond the soonest possible parole date mandated by their state.

How Long are Life Sentences Around the World?

The definition and interpretation of a life sentence varies dramatically by country. Some nations have whole life orders which make the prisoner ineligible for parole forever. However, around the world, countries define life sentences along the following lines on average:


  • Minimum of 25 years before parole eligibility.
  • In 2011, the average total time served was 28.4 years.
  • No “whole life” sentences.

United Kingdom

  • Minimum of 15-25 years before parole eligibility, depending on the crime.
  • “Whole life” sentences with no parole eligibility possible for serial killers, repeat offenders, etc.
  • Average time served by lifers released in 2013 was 16.9 years.


  • 22 years minimum for lifers to apply for parole.
  • If parole denied, can reapply every 2-5 years afterwards.
  • Average time served is 19 years.


  • Minimum 15 years before parole application.
  • Prisoners sentenced to life before 2011 can apply for parole after serving 15 years.
  • For those convicted after 2011, minimum time ranges from 15-25 years depending on severity of crime.


  • Lifers are eligible for parole review after only 1 year served.
  • If denied, eligible again every 2 years after initial review.
  • Average time served around 17-20 years.

South Africa

  • Minimum of 25 years served.
  • Possibility of parole depends on magnitude of crime.
  • Serial killers often sentenced to “life means life” terms.

Factors Affecting Life Sentence Length

While the law in each jurisdiction defines the minimum number of years before parole review, several other factors influence the actual time a lifer spends behind bars:

Initial Sentence Given

  • Was the life sentence imposed with or without parole eligibility?
  • States range in the minimum time that must elapse before parole application – 15, 25, 30+ years.


  • States and countries vary widely in how they treat parole.
  • Some jurisdictions now prohibit parole entirely for lifers.
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Prison Behavior

  • Lifers with good behavior may become eligible slightly before their minimum date.
  • Bad behavior or prison violations may delay parole eligibility.

Crime Severity

  • More egregious crimes often require longer served before parole.
  • Politically motivated crimes often serve longer too.

Public Perception

  • Parole boards consider the public response to granting parole.
  • High profile cases sometimes serve longer terms.

Age at Conviction

  • Younger offenders often serve longer before parole.
  • Older lifers may get released sooner due to health issues.

Key Takeaways:

  • At the federal level in the U.S., a life sentence typically means life without the possibility of parole.
  • State laws differ – some prohibit parole for lifers, while others allow parole after a minimum of 15-30 years served.
  • Lifers granted parole in the U.S. serve an average of 29 years in prison. For those not paroled, 40+ years is common.
  • Internationally, the minimum time served before parole eligibility ranges between 15-25 years in most countries.
  • Factors like jurisdiction, crime severity, behavior in prison, and public perception affect time served by lifers.


In summary, a “life sentence” does not indicate a definite period of time across different legal jurisdictions. The actual duration of incarceration varies depending on where the conviction occurred and minimums prescribed by law. However, research shows that on average, a life sentence in the United States means serving at least 29 years in prison. For those denied parole, 40 years or more in prison is common. Worldwide, most countries allow parole review between 15-25 years into a life sentence. But again, release is not guaranteed after serving the minimum term. The variability in parole procedures means there is no universal definition for how long is “life” in prison.

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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