How Long is a Life Sentence in Prison?

By Prison Insight Staff

Updated: April 28, 2021

When the time comes for a person who’s been convicted of a crime to receive their sentence, the punishment he/she receives can often seem quite random. Believe it or not, judges don’t have a lot of power when it comes to sentencing. Most of the laws in the federal criminal code – as well as the majority of laws in an individual state’s criminal code – have a sentencing guideline attached.

This means that when you are convicted of a crime, you are sentenced based on the guidelines attached to the specific charges. For example, I was convicted of the crime of manufacturing a controlled substance. I was also convicted of possession of a controlled substance with the intent to distribute. In the state of Missouri, these were both considered “B” felonies at the time.

For a “B” felony, the law required that I receive a sentence somewhere between five and 15 years for each charge. The judge in my case listened to the prosecutor’s request for a maximum sentence on both charges, even though I was a first-time nonviolent offender. 

This is how I received a sentence of 30 years (two 15-year sentences, running concurrently) when I was arrested for the 12 marijuana plants that were found in the house I lived in.

For some crimes, the attached sentence is life in prison. Usually, that happens when someone is convicted of murder. If a person is convicted of killing more than one person, they can receive multiple life sentences.

There are also situations in states with “three strikes” laws when someone convicted of three crimes (no matter if they are violent or nonviolent) receives a mandatory life sentence as a repeat offender. Most of these draconian laws are now off the books, but people are still serving time because of them.

All of this brings me to the subject of today’s post: How long is a life sentence in prison?

In this blog post I will cover the following topics:

  • What happens if you get life in prison?
  • Why do people receive multiple life sentences?
  • The rules are complex
  • What happens to your money if you get life in prison?

What happens if you get life in prison?

Depending on where a person is sentenced, a life sentence can last anywhere from 15 years to the remainder of the person’s natural life. Oftentimes, a violent crime like murder will result in a life sentence without the possibility of parole. This is truly a life sentence, which means the criminal will die behind bars.

But in some jurisdictions, a life sentence can come with the possibility of parole after a set number of years, like 15, 25, or 40. When a person is sentenced with the possibility of parole, they have to serve the minimum amount of time required by the law they were convicted under. Then, they can apply for release with the parole board. Parole, however, is never a guarantee in that situation.

The laws are absolutely all over the map when it comes to life sentences with the possibility of parole. They vary based on location and severity of the crime committed.

Why do people receive multiple life sentences?

Because handing out a life sentence doesn’t always mean the convicted person will spend the rest of their life behind bars, judges in certain cases will give someone multiple, consecutive life sentences. 

This usually happens in murder cases with multiple victims. The judge will look at the crime committed and decide whether or not the defendant should have the chance of being paroled back out into the community at some point. 

So, if someone is convicted of two different murders, and each one comes with a sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 20 years, sentencing that person to back-to-back life sentences will guarantee that the person will be behind bars for at least 40 years. Make sense?

Let’s look at a specific example that doesn’t involve the crime of murder. FBI Agent Robert Hanssen was a spy for the Soviets and Russians for decades before his arrest in February 2001. 

During his time as a Soviet spy, Hanssen collected an estimated $1.4 million for “giving lists of American undercover agents abroad, the identities of Russian double agents, documents showing the U.S. was intercepting Soviet satellite transmission, and the methods by which the U.S. would retaliate in the event of a nuclear attack.”

He was indicted on 21 counts of spying, and initially pleaded not guilty to all charges. But in order to avoid the death penalty, Hanssen agreed to a plea bargain that included fifteen consecutive life sentences. This guaranteed that he would spend the rest of his life behind bars because he had to serve at least 200 years before getting the chance for parole.

The rules are complex

In most states, the criminal sentencing laws can get quite complicated, especially when it comes to life sentences and the possibility of parole. As a rule, states have two different categories for life sentences. As we discussed earlier, there are crimes with life sentences that have the possibility for parole, as well as others that don’t.

Because laws are constantly changing, there’s also the issue of when the crime was committed. For example, in Georgia, if a parolee – eligible felon serving a life sentence for a serious violent crime like murder or rape – commits a crime before July 1, 2006, he/she is eligible for parole after 14 years.

However, those convicted for those same violent crimes after July 1, 2006 aren’t eligible for parole until after 30 years behind bars because of changes in the state law. Felons in Georgia who are serving a life sentence for a drug crime can apply for parole after seven years. But again, this can change because these laws aren’t set in stone. Not in Georgia, or any other state.

What happens to your money if you get life in prison?

With the exception of a few specific types of crime, when someone is sentenced to life in prison, absolutely nothing whatsoever will happen to their money, property, and assets.

In fact, when you are arrested and sent to prison, you’re still on the hook for all of your financial obligations. From your rent to your Netflix subscription, you are still legally responsible for those bills. 

When you are sentenced to life in prison – and you still have money left in your bank accounts or assets that need to be sold – a prisoner can give power of attorney to someone they trust or hire a lawyer to take care of their finances.

After you pay all of your court fees, fines, and all bills associated with your case, the inmate can keep their money and have it deposited into their prison trust account. This will allow them to purchase items from the commissary, like clothing and hygiene products.

Did you know life sentences were so complicated? Let us know in the comments below.


How Long is a Life Sentence?

Why do judges hand out multiple life sentences?

How long is a life sentence?

There was a Russian spy in the FBI for 15 years, and even he warned of election tampering

What happens to my money if I go to jail or prison?,may%20freeze%20all%20your%20assets.

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