Life lessons: Examining sources of racial and ethnic disparity in federal life without parole sentences*

Brian D. Johnson, Cassia Spohn, Anat Kimchi

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    7 Scopus citations


    Alongside capital punishment, sentences to life without the possibility of parole are one of the most distinctive aspects of the American system of criminal punishment. Unlike the death penalty, though, almost no empirical work has examined the decision to impose life imprisonment. The current study analyzes several years of recent federal sentencing data (FY2010–FY2017) to investigate underlying sources of racial disparity in life without parole sentences. The analysis reveals disparities in who receives life imprisonment, but it finds these differences are attributable mostly to indirect mechanisms built into the federal sentencing system, such as the mode of conviction, mandatory minimums, and guidelines departures. Both Black and Hispanic offenders are more likely to be eligible for life sentences under the federal guidelines, but conditional on being eligible, they are not more likely to receive life sentences. Findings are discussed in relation to ongoing debates over racial inequality and the growing role that life imprisonment plays in American exceptionalism in punishment.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)704-737
    Number of pages34
    Issue number4
    StatePublished - Nov 2021


    • criminal punishment
    • federal sentencing
    • life without parole
    • racial disparity

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
    • Law


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