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Ashley Nellis

Co-Director of Research, The Sentencing Project

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. 


In the News

Opinion: "Pennsylvania is Poised for Much-Needed Criminal Justice Reform, but Can We Abolish Life Without Parole?," Ashley Nellis, The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 28, 2019.
Interviewed in "Calling for the End of Life Sentences," (with Marc Mauer) New York Public Radio, January 15, 2019.
Quoted by Ken Strutin in "Life Expectancy and the Algorithms of Confinement," New York Law Journal, March 26, 2018.
Guest on KWBE Nebraska, May 4, 2017.
Opinion: "What We Can Learn from the Amazing Drop in Juvenile Incarceration," Ashley Nellis (with Marc Mauer), The Marshall Project, January 24, 2017.
Opinion: "Expanding NM’s 3-Strikes Law a Step Backward," Ashley Nellis, Albuquerque Journal, February 15, 2016.
Opinion: "Restoring Reason to Juvenile Sentencing," Ashley Nellis, American Constitution Society, February 2, 2016.
Opinion: "Dealing with ‘Other People’s Children'," Ashley Nellis, The Crime Report, January 13, 2016.
Quoted by John Caniglia in "Eluding Death: Ohio Prosecutors Charge Far Fewer Capital Murder Cases,", November 25, 2015.
Quoted by Jeff Jacoby in "With Imprisonment Up, Crime is Down," The Boston Globe, August 5, 2009.
Quoted by Solomon Moore in "Number of Life Terms Hits Record," New York Times , July 22, 2009.


"The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences" (with Marc Mauer) (The New Press, 2018).

Argues that there is no practical or moral justification for a sentence longer than twenty years. In fact, harsher sentences have been shown to have little effect on crime rates, and a broad body of research demonstrates that people "age out" of crime, meaning that we're devoting significant resources to incarcerating individuals who pose little threat to public safety.

"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.

"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.

"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.


"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. 


"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.