In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Life Without Parole Sentencing

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data and Policy Resources
  • History and Development of Life Without Parole Sentencing in the United States
  • International Perspectives
  • Theorizations of LWOP

Criminology Life Without Parole Sentencing
Christopher Seeds
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0326


Life without parole sentencing refers to laws, policies, and practices concerning lifetime prison sentences that also preclude release by parole. While sentences to imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole have existed for more than a century in the United States, over the past four decades the penalty has emerged as a prominent element of US punishment, routinely put to use by penal professionals and featured regularly in public discourse. As use of the death penalty diminishes in the United States, life without parole (often referred to as LWOP) serves as the ultimate punishment in more and more jurisdictions. The scope with which US jurisdictions apply life without parole varies, however, and some states authorize the punishment even for nonviolent offenses. Beyond the instrumental purposes of retribution, crime control, and public safety, and beyond its symbolic functions in US culture and politics, the life without parole sentence is a lived experience for more than fifty thousand people incarcerated in the United States. Although the United States accounts for approximately half of the world’s life sentences, the contemporary rise of whole life sentencing should be seen as an international phenomenon. Recognizing this, the bibliography focuses on LWOP in the United States but recognizes developments worldwide.

General Overviews

The short list below identifies introductory material on life without parole sentencing, in which readers may find considerations of questions including the following: What does a life without parole sentence entail (Kazemian and Travis 2015, Mauer and Nellis 2018)? How is a life without parole sentence similar to or different from other life and long-term sentences or to a sentence of death (Ogletree and Sarat 2012, Seeds 2021, Sheleff 1988, Van Zyl Smit and Appleton 2019)? Can this extreme punishment be justified and what arguments are marshalled to do so (Appleton and Grøver 2007, Robinson 2012, Sheleff 1988, Van Zyl Smit and Appleton 2019)? What social and political circumstances give rise to the rapid growth of life without parole sentencing in the United States in the late twentieth century or stand as obstacles to its reform or abolition (Gottschalk 2013, Seeds 2021)? What is the prevalence and scope of death-in-prison sentencing worldwide (Van Zyl Smit and Appleton 2019)?

  • Appleton, Catherine, and Bent Grøver. 2007. The pros and cons of life without parole. British Journal of Criminology 47.4: 597–615.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjc/azm001

    The article provides an overview of life without parole sentencing and considers the primary rationales marshalled to justify life without parole sentences. The article confronts the question of whether a life without parole sentence—which offers no reasonable possibility of release and ignores the capacity for growth and maturation in prison—is any less objectionable, as a matter of human dignity, than a death sentence.

  • Gottschalk, Marie. 2013. Sentenced to life: Penal reform and the most severe sanctions. Annual Review of Law and Social Science 9:353–382.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-lawsocsci-102612-134014

    An insightful discussion of the politics that promote and sustain life without parole sentencing in the United States. The article also discusses obstacles to reform, which include the wide variety of crimes for which states authorize life without parole sentences, the bifurcated treatment of people convicted of violent and serious offenses from those convicted of low-level offenses, and contemporary “anti-mercy conceptions of clemency.” The chapter highlights the need for state-level research.

  • Kazemian, Lila, and Jeremy Travis. 2015. Imperative for inclusion of long termers and lifers in research and policy. Criminology & Public Policy 14.2: 355–395.

    DOI: 10.1111/1745-9133.12126

    A comprehensive assessment of social science research on the experience of people serving life and long-term sentences. The article emphasizes that people serving life without parole sentences generally have a constructive and stabilizing impact on the prison culture as they age, despite the fact that programming for lifers is less available in many state systems. The authors propose changes in correctional programming.

  • Mauer, Marc, and Ashley Nellis (with Kerry Myers). 2018. The meaning of life: The case for abolishing life sentences. New York: The New Press.

    The authors, leading experts in the field of life sentencing, provide an overview of the rise of life without parole sentencing in the United States and present a rigorous argument for its abolition.

  • Ogletree, Charles J., and Austin Sarat. 2012. Life without parole: America’s new death penalty? New York: New York Univ. Press.

    An edited volume, featuring contributions from leading legal and sociolegal scholars. A pioneering work in the field and essential resource on life without parole.

  • Robinson, Paul. 2012. Life without parole under modern theories of punishment. In Life without parole: America’s new death penalty? Edited by Charles Ogletree and Austin Sarat, 138–166. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    Assesses the theories of punishment and related arguments that have been used to justify LWOP sentencing—including general deterrence, incapacitation, and desert. The author determines that none of these rationales supports LWOP sentencing in practice.

  • Seeds, Christopher. 2021. Life sentences and perpetual confinement. Annual Review of Criminology 4:287–309.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-criminol-061020-022154

    A review of scholarship on lifetime sentencing, organized into three areas: historical developments in the use and meaning of life sentences in the United States; the definition of life sentences as an object of research (introducing perpetual confinement as an analytical frame); and the lived experience and penal management of life sentences.

  • Sheleff, Leon. 1988. Ultimate penalties: Capital punishment, life imprisonment and physical torture. Columbus: The Ohio State Univ. Press.

    Argues that debates over capital punishment have diverted attention from other punishments that are equally if not more severe—namely, life imprisonment and torture. In doing so, the author considers why life imprisonment was so long overlooked in the academy.

  • Van Zyl Smit, Dirk, and Catherine Appleton. 2019. Life imprisonment: A global human rights analysis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674989139

    In the first global survey of life sentences worldwide, these leading experts comprehensively address different forms of life sentences, arguments for and against life sentences, the prevalence and scope of life sentencing across nations and continents, as well as literature on the lived experiences of people who serve life sentences.

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