Report analyses extreme sentences imposed on thousands of women

WASHINGTON D.C. – The Sentencing Project recently released a new report analyzing the extreme sentences imposed on thousands of women in the United States. Currently, one of every 15 women in prison -- amounting to more than 6,600 women -- is serving a life sentence. Among these are nearly 2,000 women serving life without parole (LWOP) and another 52 women in the U.S. are awaiting execution.

“The imposition of life without parole and death sentences on women characterizes the worst forms of cruelty in the American corrections system,” says Ashley Nellis, author of the report and Senior Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project. “To mark individuals as beyond repair and only worthy of dying at the hands of the state is a shameful practice that should be abandoned immediately.”

Since 2008, the number of women serving life without parole (LWOP) has surged an alarming 43 percent. Florida, Pennsylvania, California, Michigan, Louisiana, and Mississippi have the most women serving life without parole. Nationwide, California has the greatest number of women on death row.

Racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal legal system are tightly linked to disparities in the racial composition of women serving extreme sentences. More than four in ten women on death row are people of color and one of every 39 Black women in prison is serving LWOP.

In some states, the racial statistics are particularly stark. In Pennsylvania, one in nine Black women in prison is serving life without parole. In Michigan, it’s one in 11. In Mississippi, it’s one in 12. And in Louisiana, it’s one in 14.

Compared to white women, Black women serving LWOP appear more likely to be sentenced at a younger age. The report finds that Black women are, on average, 4.5 years younger at sentencing compared to white women.

Sydney McKinney, Ph.D., MPH, MA, Executive Director of the National Black Women's Justice Institute, said “The overwhelming majority of Black women who come in contact with the criminal legal system have experienced deep trauma and harm in their lives. We know that criminalization and incarceration cause more trauma and do not increase community safety—and extreme sentences exacerbate this. We need to end the use of extreme sentences, and we must invest in the livelihood of community members and create thriving neighborhoods through resources that support and promote healing.”

The report also found while women are frequently responsible for a comparatively smaller role in violent crime (e.g., being a getaway driver), they are still punished just as harshly as the more involved participant. That’s because some laws do not account for differences between major participants and minor participants in violent crimes. In other words, defendants are required to get the same punishment regardless of their role in the crime.

In Michigan, over one-quarter of the women serving LWOP have been convicted for having a secondary role in a homicide. In Pennsylvania, one in five women serving LWOP has been convicted of felony murder.

Sandra Lynn Babcock, Director, Cornell University Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, said “Women facing extreme sentences were victims long before they became perpetrators. The great majority have endured sexual and/or domestic violence, and the legal system consistently fails to take their experiences into account before imposing sentences. Even worse, prosecutors often highlight women’s supposed deviance from expected gender norms to request highly aggravated sentences.”

In the Extreme: Women Serving Life without Parole and Death Sentences in the United States is authored by Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., Senior Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project. The report is a joint publication of The Sentencing Project, National Black Women’s Justice Institute and the Cornell University Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide.

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