This is the third in a series of blogs related to understanding who is incarcerated in Michigan prisons, why they are incarcerated, and for how long. The first post looked at some of the demographics of our prison population. In the second blog, which took a look changing size of our prison population, we ended by mentioning that a quarter of people incarcerated are serving a minimum sentence of 20 years or greater. Using the Michigan Department of Corrections data acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request in October 2018, we will examine this section of the population in more detail.


There are more than 10,000 people in Michigan serving minimum sentences of 20 years or longer, which is more than a quarter of states the prison population.  In order to continue to reduce the prison population and correctional spending, we need to understand who are serving long sentences and develop policies address these issues.


Lifers and long-timers compared to the rest of the prison population

Focusing specifically on this population, there are several important differences between people serving long sentences and the rest of the population. On average, people who are serving these longer sentences are older and have served more time than the rest of the population. Overall, the average age of a person incarcerated in Michigan in October 2018 was about 40 years old, while the average age of an individual in this subsection of the population was 47 years old, with a range of 18 to 91 years old.

Opposite of this trend is the age of conviction. Those who were sentenced to sentences with minimums of at least 20 years were slightly younger at conviction than people who received shorter sentences. People who received long sentences were an averaging of 31 years old at the time of conviction, compared to the age of 32.5 years for the rest of the incarcerated population.

Additionally, the length of time served as of October 2018 is more than doubled for this group. Looking at the entire incarcerated population, the average amount of time served is 7.43 years. However, for the group serving more than 20 years, the average is 16.28 years.

We also see significant racial differences between this group and the rest of the population. Keeping in mind the limited accuracy of the racial data available through the MDOC, about 53 percent of the people incarcerated in Michigan prisons were identified as black, 43 percent white, and the remaining 4 percent as other categories. In a state like Michigan, where black people comprise about 14.1 percent of the population, this means that black people are already heavily overrepresented in our prisons, but that overrepresentation becomes even worse among people serving life or long sentences. Among that group, 64 percent of people are black, 33 percent are white and the remaining 3 percent belong to other categories.


Comparisons within the group

While there are important differences between the rest of the population and those who are serving long sentences, there are also important differences within this group. The primary distinction is their minimum sentence, as shown in the graph below, approximately half of the people in this group are serving a long indeterminate sentence (LID) and the other half are serving a life sentence. Among those serving a life sentence, some are eligible for parole and some are not. Those serving life sentences will be further explored in future blogs.


*May not equal 100% due to rounding


Sentencing in Michigan

Michigan has an indeterminate sentencing structure, which means they are not told a set number of years they will be in prison when they are given their sentence. At their sentencing, they receive a minimum sentence, which is set by a judge. Their maximum sentence is determined by law. Once a person has served their minimum sentence, the parole board has jurisdiction to determine eligibility for release.

For example, someone has been found guilty of first-degree home invasion, which has a maximum sentence of 20 years. A judge sentences him to a minimum of five years in prison. The individual would have to be incarcerated for five years, but after that point, he would become eligible for parole. However, there is no obligation for the parole board to release him, and he could spend the full 20 years incarcerated.

Further, due to truth in sentencing laws passed in the late-1990s, people incarcerated in Michigan must serve 100 percent of their minimum sentence before they are eligible for parole. That means that if someone has been given a minimum sentence of 100 years, they are not eligible for release until all of those 100 years have been served. This is sometimes called a “virtual life sentence,” because in effect, it means the person will live the rest of his or her life in prison.

Parole eligibility is significantly different for those who are sentenced to life. Approximately 70 percent of those serving life sentences in Michigan are serving a life without parole (LWOP), meaning they are not eligible for parole. The remaining 30 percent of those incarcerated serving a life sentence in Michigan are serving life with parole. However, the process for this group is significantly different and will be the focus of the next blog in this series.

Safe & Just Michigan is committed to sentencing reform that is fair, increases public safety, and reasonably utilizes state resources. Understanding who are serving these sentences is an important step in creating and achieving reform.

~Anne Mahar
Research Specialist