How Long is a Life Sentence?

By Teo Spengler - Updated April 13, 2018
Hands of man behind jail bars.

How long will a life sentence keep a person in prison? It all depends. Obviously, the length of a prison stay for a person sentenced to life depends on how long he lives, but that is just the beginning of the confusion. Most states distinguish between a sentence of life in prison without parole, in which case the person stays incarcerated until he dies, and life in prison with the possibility of parole. In the latter case, laws are all over the map as to when the offender can be considered for parole.

Tip

A life sentence is a type of prison sentence for serious offenses, requiring that the criminal stay in prison for the rest of his life unless paroled, pardoned or permitted to leave under state laws.

How Long Is a Life Sentence by State?

In most states, the laws about criminal sentencing and the possibility of parole can be quite complicated. Georgia's laws are fairly typical, but you should check the laws and parole guidelines for the particular state you are interested in to learn specific details.

In Georgia, a convicted felon can be sentenced to life in prison without parole or life in prison with the possibility of parole. Those in the first category stay in prison for the rest of their lives. Those in the second category can be considered for parole at some point. That depends on the nature of the crime and the date of the offense. The date of the crime is important because of changes in state laws.

For example, a parole-eligible felon in Georgia serving a life sentence for a serious violent felony, like murder or rape, that happened before July 1, 2006, are considered for parole after serving 14 years. Felons committed for serious violent felonies on or after July 1, 2006, must serve 30 years before they are eligible for parole. Most of those with life sentences for violent felonies before 1995 were eligible for parole after seven years. Felons serving life sentences for drug offenses can apply for parole consideration after seven years. Many exceptions apply, so even these complex rules cannot be said to be set in stone.

How Long Is a Life Sentence in Other States?

Michigan laws distinguish between a mandatory term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and a life sentence with the possibility of parole. In this state, the mandatory term must be imposed if someone is convicted of first-degree murder or an explosives charge that causes personal injury. If sentenced to a mandatory life sentence, the person cannot and will not be paroled unless the sentence is commuted or pardoned by the governor.

If a criminal is sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, the parole board can consider parole after 10 years if the crime happened before October 1, 1992. However, the sentencing judge can file written objections and prevent this. If the crime occurred on or after October 1, 1992, the board can consider parole after 15 years. Again, the sentencing judge can file written objections.

Can You Get Parole on a Life Sentence?

If a convicted criminal is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, no parole is possible. If the sentence is life in prison with the possibility of parole, the person will become eligible for parole at some point in the future. Often states reserve life sentences without the possibility of parole for offenders whose crimes involve the type of aggravating circumstances that would be sufficient to warrant a sentence of death. Sometimes repeat offenders convicted of violent felonies are also sentenced to life without parole.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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