Ashley Nellis

Senior Research Analyst, The Sentencing Project
Areas of Expertise:
  • Media & Public Opinion
  • Children & Families
  • Criminal Justice
  • Race & Ethnicity

About Ashley

Nellis’s work focuses on extreme sentencing policies in the justice system and their consequences on prisoners, families of incarcerated people, and American society as a whole. She has conducted a series of national investigations into the use of life sentences for adults and produced law review pieces, book chapters, journal articles, and research reports on this topic. Nellis’s work also closely tracks the use of life sentences for juveniles (JLWOP), and in 2012 published results from a national survey of inmates serving such sentences. Her findings from research on lifers has been widely cited. Nellis also has expertise in youth justice and the role of race in its troubled history. She volunteers with OAR (Offender Aid and Restoration), a nonprofit organization that assists people in helping people get back on their feet after incarceration. 




"The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons," The Sentencing Project, 2016.

Documents the rates of incarceration for whites, African Americans, and Hispanics in each state, identifies three contributors to racial and ethnic disparities in imprisonment, and provides recommendations for reform.

"The Lives of Juvenile Lifers: Findings from a National Survey," The Sentencing Project, March 2012.

Surveys nearly 1,700 individuals serving life without parole (LWOP) sentences to determine characteristics of their lives that could explain, but not justify, their crimes. Shows that young people who commit serious offenses have frequently endured heavy doses of personal and community-level violence, experienced school pushout, and lived in extreme poverty as children; those experiences directly related to their choices to commit crime. 

"Tinkering with Life: A Look at the Inappropriateness of LWOP as an Alternative to the Death Penalty" University of Miami Law Review 67 (2012): 439-438.

Presents the use of life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences in relation to the declining popularity of the death penalty, provides historical analysis of the enactment of LWOP statutes, and discusses the potential for eliminating both the death penalty and so-called death-in-prison sentences. 


"Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Imprisonment in the United States," The Sentencing Project, 2013.

Documents the growing proportion of prisoners serving sentences of life with parole (LWP) and life without parole (LWOP), disaggregated by gender, age, race, ethnicity, and crime of conviction. Discusses causes for the continued growth of life sentences even as other criminal justice reforms are taking place to challenge mass incarceration.


A Return to Justice: Rethinking Our Approach to Juveniles in the System (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).

Presents the history of juvenile justice from the standpoint that the original tenets of the juvenile justice system have slowly been dismantled and replaced with a system more like the adult criminal justice system, one which takes no account of age. Discusses how in recent years, the tide has turned and substantial reforms are underway.  Shows how the system might continue on the road to reform.

"The Impact of Life Imprisonment on Prospects for Criminal Justice Reform in the U.S." in Life Imprisonment and Human Rights, edited by Dirk Van Zyl Smit and Catherine Appleton (Hart Publishing, 2016).

Discusses the use of lifelong prison sentences in the U.S. in comparison to the rest of the world and documents the persistent growth of American life sentences in an era of broad criminal justice reforms.

In the News

Ashley Nellis quoted on long-term prison sentencing in Ken Strutin, "Life Expectancy and the Algorithms of Confinement" New York Law Journal, March 26, 2018.
Guest to discuss inmates serving life sentences on KWBE Nebraska, Ashley Nellis, May 4, 2017.
"What We Can Learn from the Amazing Drop in Juvenile Incarceration," Ashley Nellis (with Marc Mauer), The Marshall Project, January 24, 2017.
Ashley Nellis quoted on life sentences in Solomon Moore, "Number of Life Terms Hits Record" New York Times , July 22, 2009.
Ashley Nellis quoted on Sentencing Project in Jeff Jacoby, "With Imprisonment Up, Crime is Down" The Boston Globe, August 5, 2009.
Guest to discuss juvenile sentencing on Between the Lines: New Policies in Juvenile Justice System Obstruct Goal of Youth Rehabilitation, Ashley Nellis, September 28, 2011.
Ashley Nellis quoted on prison sentences in John Caniglia, "Eluding Death: Ohio Prosecutors Charge Far Fewer Capital Murder Cases", November 25, 2015.
Ashley Nellis quoted on life without parole in Matt Smith, "Alabama Inmate Evan Miller Awaits Resenting Four Years after Landmark Decision", March 18, 2016.
"Dealing with ‘Other People’s Children'," Ashley Nellis, The Crime Report, January 13, 2016.
"Restoring Reason to Juvenile Sentencing," Ashley Nellis, American Constitution Society, February 2, 2016.
"Expanding NM’s 3-Strikes Law a Step Backward," Ashley Nellis, Albuquerque Journal, February 15, 2016.