Close to one in every 10 prisoners in New Jersey is serving a life sentence.

That's a low percentage compared to most other states, but the Garden State has seen a jump in the number of inmates expected to spend the rest of their lives in jail without the possibility of parole, according to a report released by The Sentencing Project.

Using data from early 2020, the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group finds New Jersey is home to 1,715 for-life prisoners, including those serving a "virtual" life sentence — a sentence of 50 years or more. Fewer than 100 of New Jersey's prisoners serving a life sentence are doing so without a shot at parole — that number has jumped by more than 22% over the past few years.

"While it's doing its job of lowering imprisonment for some people, it's raising imprisonment for others, and that group is going to be the most costly," Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst, said of New Jersey.

Thousands of inmates were released early by the state in November 2020 due to a state law that aimed to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

According to the report, New Jersey records one of the highest rates (42%) of for-life prisoners who are 55 and older. Only North Carolina and Montana post slightly higher rates.

"Which is problematic in its own way, but it's also problematic in this time because they are especially vulnerable to COVID," Nellis said.

Black individuals make up 64% of New Jersey's prisoners serving a life sentence, according to the report. People of color represent more than three quarters of the state's for-life population.

Nationwide, 15% of prisoners are serving some sort of a life sentence, according to the report. The count in early 2020 (203,865) was five times greater than it was in 1984.

"The now commonplace use of life imprisonment contradicts research on effective public safety strategies, exacerbates already extreme racial injustices in the criminal justice system, and exemplifies the egregious consequences of mass incarceration," the report states.

Among the group's recommendations is a call to "abolish life without parole."

"Life without the possibility of parole doesn't mean everyone gets out, it means that everyone has the possibility of parole," Nellis said.

The group suggests a 20-year cap on all life sentences, except in rare circumstances, and calls for governments to accelerate and broaden release opportunities so more prisoners get a "second look."

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at

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