How Long Is a Life Sentence in New York?

Crime is an unfortunate part of reality across the globe. From ancient civilizations through to modern day, crime has remained a concern, although it has been dealt with very differently as civilizations were established and populations grew.

Today, people who commit illegal activities such as theft, assault, and murder are subject to imprisonment when found guilty.

A life sentence is one of the harshest punishments apart from the death penalty, although life sentences vary based on the jurisdiction and the criminal justice system.

As the name suggests, a life sentence in New York is for the rest of the individual’s natural life. Some prisoners have the chance for parole while others do not.

Continue reading for more information on life sentences in New York.

Table of Contents

What is a life sentence?

never be released

The concept of a life sentence applies in 183 countries. 65 of these nations have life without parole, meaning criminals will never be released and will die in prison.

In 144 countries, there is the opportunity for parole depending on a case-by-case basis.

Life sentences are common across the U.S., which is known for its “innocent until proven guilty” criminal justice system.

In a perfect world, this means all those convicted of illegal activity are rightfully imprisoned after a fair trial, but unfortunately, many cases slip through the cracks and some individuals are wrongfully jailed for life.

This happens in America and in many other countries, but the benefits of having dangerous criminals locked up for life outweigh the risks.

Murderers and terrorists are the most likely offenders to receive a life sentence, although some countries put drug dealers, robbers, and fraudsters behind bars for life, too.

It varies by country and the individual, particularly their past criminal history and how likely they are to re-offend.

Age also has something to do with it in many cases, as young offenders are more apt to receive rehabilitation than older criminals that are unlikely to live much longer in prison.

Does New York have a lot of life sentences?

high security

New York is known for its strict life sentences and high prison population, which makes sense considering its home to the country’s largest city with 8.8 million people.

Statewide, there are nearly 20 million people, so naturally, New York has more criminals to deal with than sparsely populated states like Alaska or Wyoming.

Alaska, Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas are the four states that don’t have life sentences without parole, while New York does have non-parole life imprisonment.

A life sentence in New York can be without parole, with parole, or for virtual life, which is when the prison term exceeds the natural life expectancy.

According to New York Focus, approximately 8,000 New York prisoners are serving life sentences, which is about 20% of the state’s total prison population.

80% of those with a life sentence are Latinx or Black.

New York is near the top of the list for states with life sentences, which is due largely to parole policy as many sentences were extended for more than the minimum outlined by the judge.

Prisoners sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole will stay behind bars until they die unless they are pardoned.

It’s rare, but sometimes sentences may be commuted, which changes life imprisonment without parole to a fixed term.

stay behind bars

How many prisons does New York have?

Given the thousands of prisoners locked up for the rest of their natural lives, or at the very least decades until they are up for parole, New York needs a lot of prisons.

New York has 48 state prisons with approximately 54,700 inmates as of 2022. Over a dozen prisons have closed and the state no longer contracts with private prisons, according to a law that came into effect in 2016.

In addition to the state correctional facilities, New York also has NYC jails and federal prisons, including Otisville and Ray Brook, both medium-security prisons.

Out of all the jails and prisons in New York, none is more famous than Rikers Island, which is the main jail complex in NYC.

Situated on a 413-acre island between Queens and the Bronx, this jail is surrounded by the East River, making escapes difficult but not impossible.

Rikers Island is one of the largest correctional facilities and mental institutions in the world.

The New York City Department of Correction operates the complex with an annual budget of $860 million and 9,000 officers overseeing operations.

New York City Department of Correction

Although New York has thousands of people serving life sentences, they usually aren’t housed at Rikers as it’s dedicated to defendants remanded in custody, held on bail, or convicted with short sentences.

Does New York have a lot of crime?

Over 50,000 people are behind bars in the New York prison system, which raises the question of how much crime there is in the city and across the state.

The Bronx has a dangerous reputation, but parts of Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island have safety concerns, too.

Even so, New York ranks the eighth-safest state overall according to ConsumerAffairs.

One of the main reasons why New York ranks so highly is the high ratio of law enforcement to residents.

It’s the third-highest nationwide with one law enforcement employee for every 335 residents.

Property crime is low, ranking 10th overall, while New York ranks 25th for violent crime and 13th for law enforcement spending.

Neighboring New Jersey sits at the top of the list for state safety, again due to the high proportion of law enforcement looking after local residents.

In 2020, New Jersey had 38,628 law enforcement officers, which works out to one per every 230 people.

law enforcement NJ

That’s at least 100% greater than the nationwide average, which explains why New Jersey ranks fifth with low rates of both violent and property crime.

What are New York incarceration trends?

When evaluating New York’s high level of life sentences and overall crime rates, it’s important to keep in mind the state’s incarceration trends.

As published by, New York ranks fifth in the region for total incarceration, although there has been a 64% increase in the prison population over the last 30 years.

In 1983, New York had 47,106 prisoners, while that figure jumped to 77,073 total people locked up for short-term and long-term sentences by 2015.

This aligns with the national trend of rising incarceration, which has grown more than fourfold throughout the U.S. since 1970.

In fact, America is the global leader in putting people behind bars, with racial disparities remaining a real concern, as well as the rising number of women locked up.

Although some states have tried to reduce their reliance on jails and prisons, the number of inmates in many rural areas continues to rise.

maximum security

If you look at the geography of New York incarceration, you’ll see the state is on trend with high levels of rural incarceration.

Part of that is due to the location of prisons and jails away from highly populated areas, although rural communities are dealing with challenging crime rates, too.

Chemung and Warren Counties led the state in jail and prison admissions for 2015, respectively.

The entire state of New York will need to continue to support the criminal justice system to ensure the safest communities while also addressing the growing demand for prison reform, particularly in regard to life sentences.