The Law Dictionary

Your Free Online Legal Dictionary • Featuring Black’s Law Dictionary, 2nd Ed.

How Long Is a Life Sentence?

Prison cells where inmates serve life sentences

When a judge sentences a defendant to life in prison, this doesn’t always mean that the individual who was convicted of criminal wrongdoing will remain in prison for the rest of their life. Depending upon the nature of the crime, any mandatory minimum sentencing laws that may apply to the situation, and whether there is a possibility of parole qualifying the judgment, a life sentence does not necessarily mean life imprisonment.

So how long is a life sentence? Here’s a look at some common questions about life sentences and how they play out in the real world.

What Is a Life Sentence?

The answer to the question “How long is a life sentence?” is present within the definition of the term “life sentence” itself. Practically speaking, a life sentence is a term of imprisonment in which the convicted felon must remain incarcerated for either the remainder of their life or until one of the following occurs:

  • Their crime is pardoned
  • Their sentence is commuted
  • They are paroled

This means that the length of a life sentence can be changed by external factors. If not, the felon remains imprisoned for the remainder of their life.

Does a Life Sentence Always Last for the Length of a Defendant’s Life?

Not all crimes that are punishable by life sentences are parole-eligible. If someone is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, only a pardon or commutation of their sentence will allow them to apply for release. State crimes are pardoned or commuted by governors whereas federal crimes must be pardoned or commuted by the president.

While pardons and commutations are rarely granted, many individuals who are sentenced to life in prison are eventually paroled. Most criminal defendants are sentenced under state law. Each state has their own requirements for the parole process. For example, in Georgia, those serving parole-eligible life sentences for serious violent felonies are eligible for parole after serving either 14 years in prison (for offenses committed before July 1, 2006) or 30 years in prison (for offenses committed on or after July 1, 2006).

Not everyone who’s eligible for parole is granted this reprieve. When eligible for parole, a prisoner can apply to the parole board that oversees their case. The board then determines whether to grant or deny release.

Even then, the decision of a parole board may not be final. For example, Sirhan Sirhan, who was convicted of the murder of Senator Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, was denied parole 15 times before his request was granted parole by a two-person panel. However, California’s governor at the time rejected the parole board’s decision due to Sirhan’s refusal to accept responsibility for his wrongdoing.

When Consecutive Sentences Lead to Life in Prison

If a defendant is convicted of multiple crimes or offenses (sometimes referred to as “counts” for the purposes of sentencing), they may be sentenced to consecutive or concurrent terms of imprisonment. Concurrent sentences are served simultaneously, whereas consecutive terms are served back-to-back. This calculus complicates the question of “How long is a life sentence?”

Some consecutive sentences can result in a term of imprisonment that exceeds the span of any human life. The following example illustrates how even parole-eligible sentences can effectively become life sentences without any practical possibility of parole.

Predatory former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to consecutive state and federal sentences for sexual abuse and child pornography offenses. He is, technically, able to apply for parole under his sentencing terms. However, he won’t become eligible until 2117, which means that he’ll have to serve 100 years total before he can apply for release.

How Long Is a Life Sentence When Multiple Life Sentences Are Ordered?

Not every criminal defendant is accused of a single crime. When an individual is convicted of multiple felonies, such as the murder of multiple people at once, they may be subjected to multiple life sentences. Their sentencing may be handed down as concurrent or consecutive life sentences. While sentencing someone to multiple life sentences to be served consecutively seems counterintuitive (as the defendant only has one life to serve in prison), this sentencing structure is meant to honor the need for justice on behalf of each victim and to hold the offender explicitly accountable for each crime they’ve committed.

How Often Are Americans Sentenced to Life in Prison?

While relatively few convicted felons are sentenced to life in prison or “de facto” life sentences at the federal level, life sentences and de facto life sentences are strikingly common in state courts. A de facto life sentence is one that, while not technically a term of imprisonment for life, is so lengthy that it effectively becomes a life sentence for the defendant. For example, if a 30-year-old is sentenced to 85 years in prison, they won’t be walking free again unless they’re paroled, pardoned, or granted a commutation.

De facto life sentences are one more reason why answering the question “How long is a life sentence?” isn’t a straightforward endeavor. What is clear is that more and more people in the U.S. are being sentenced to life sentences.

One study released by The Sentencing Project found that one out of every seven people in U.S. prisons were serving life or virtual (de facto) life sentences. This statistic indicates that while relatively few federal inmates are serving life sentences, states are imprisoning individuals for life or for life on a de facto basis, at staggering rates.

How Long Is a Life Sentence in Your State?

The length of a life sentence can vary based upon whether the possibility of parole is available for a defendant. If you have additional questions about charges that you or a loved one is facing, schedule a free initial review of your case to learn more.


This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

Recent Criminal Law Articles