The Meaning of Life

The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences

From the author of the classic Race to Incarcerate, a forceful and necessary argument for eliminating life sentences, including profiles of six people directly impacted by life sentences by formerly incarcerated author Kerry Myers

“I can think of no authors more qualified to research the complex impact of life sentences than Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis. They have the expertise to track down the information that all citizens need to know and the skills to translate that research into accessible and powerful prose.” —Heather Ann Thompson, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Blood in the Water

Most Western democracies have few or no people serving life sentences, yet here in the United States more than 200,000 people are sentenced to such prison terms.

Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis of The Sentencing Project argue that there is no practical or moral justification for a sentence longer than twenty years. Harsher sentences have been shown to have little effect on crime rates, since people “age out” of crime—meaning that we’re spending a fortune on geriatric care for older prisoners who pose little threat to public safety. Extreme punishment for serious crime also has an inflationary effect on sentences across the spectrum, helping to account for severe mandatory minimums and other harsh punishments.

A thoughtful and stirring call to action, The Meaning of Life also features moving profiles of a half dozen people affected by life sentences, written by former “lifer” and award-winning writer Kerry Myers. The book will tie in to a campaign spearheaded by The Sentencing Project and offers a much-needed road map to a more humane criminal justice system.


“Sure to have a profound impact on legislators and everyday citizens across America. The Sentencing Project started working on criminal justice reform long before it became fashionable. Combining impeccable research with smart policy recommendations, their work continues to set the gold standard.”
—James Forman Jr., author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Locking Up Our Own
“The life sentence is the hard core of America’s punitive penal complex. Without the kind of bold rethinking that Mauer and Nellis offer, mass incarceration will be inescapable.”
—Jonathan Simon, author of Mass Incarceration on Trial
“A blistering indictment of America’s practice of sentencing people to die in prison that dares readers to change the way we think about public safety,redemption, and justice. Essential reading for anyone committed to restoring legitimacy to our institutions.”
—Vanita Gupta, president and CEO, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
“An argument as persuasive as it is humane.”
—Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award–winning author of Stamped from the Beginning

News and Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

“[C]onvincingly and meticulously researched. . . . Mauer and Nellis not only build a compelling argument for ending life imprisonment; they also provide strategic public-policy groundwork for enacting a maximum 20-year sentence. . . .

Publishers Weekly

A “trenchant and urgent book.”


Vox’s German Lopez draws on THE MEANING OF LIFE data to promote the case for capping life sentences at 20 years

NPR’s Weekend

Co-author Ashley Nellis speaks with Lulu Garcia-Navarro about abolishing life sentences for juveniles


Goodreads Reviews