It surprises people to discover that a life sentence does not always mean the offender will spend the rest of his days in a prison. Often times, a life sentence means you will have to serve a lot of time, but at some point, you will be eligible to apply for parole.
Each state determines how its life sentences will be structured. For example, Tennessee life sentences typically mean the offender must spend 51 years in prison before he can apply for parole.
In other states, such as California an offender can be sentenced to do 25 years to life. This means that he must serve a minimum of 25 years before applying for parole.
Parole is never promised. Whether a life offender is granted parole depends on several factors including:
The Nature of the Crime: Even though most cases that warrant a life sentence involve the death of a victim or victims, some cases are viewed as “worse” than others. The extent of the crime is considered, as is the public safety when determining whether to give a lifer parole.
Good Behavior: The offender’s behavior during incarceration always plays a part in the parole board’s decision, but in the case of a life sentence it becomes a focal point. A five-to-seven year sentence means even if the offender does not parole out after five years, he will be released after seven because his sentence is done.
With a life sentence, they can keep the offender for life if the parole board does not feel parole is feasible. This makes it important for the offender to be a model prisoner if he hopes to parole before he dies.
Exceptions: Most states allow for judges to remove the possibility of parole in particularly violent cases, or in cases where the offender is a career criminal. In such cases the sentence is handed down as “life without the possibility of parole”.
Final thoughts: Life doesn’t always mean the rest of a life, though it does usually mean the offender will spend decades in prison before he can try to parole.