Dealing in Lives: Imposition of Federal Life Sentences for Drugs from 1990–2020
Drug Enforcement and Policy Center, February 2022
35 Pages Posted: 1 Mar 2022 Last revised: 3 Mar 2022
Date Written: February 24, 2022
The “tough on crime” era of the 1980’s and 1990’s ushered in a growing reliance on prisons, the ratcheting up of sentence lengths, and a broader expansion of the criminal justice system. Life sentences, historically rarely imposed, became increasingly commonplace in the 1980s through the 2000s, contributing to the ballooning imprisoned population. While there are growing concerns about the increased use of life sentences in the United States, there has been limited empirical study of these sentences. This report seeks to fill this gap with a particular focus on the federal sentencing system and the imposition of life sentences for drug offenses. Specifically, the current report documents federal life sentences imposed for drug trafficking over the last three decades, taking a closer look at the defendant and case-specific characteristics, and providing a descriptive account of the factors that are associated with those sentenced to life in prison in federal courts.
Keywords: life sentences, LWOP, de facto life sentence, drugs, sentencing, racial disparities, federal sentencing, crack cocaine, powder cocaine, methamphetamines, marijuana, heroin
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