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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.