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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of inmates serving life sentences in U.S. prisons has risen by 83 percent since 1992 and now constitute one of every 11 prisoners, according to a report published on Tuesday. The report by the Sentencing Project, a Washington think tank that studies criminal justice issues and advocates for a smaller prison system, put the total number of "lifers" in state and federal prisons at almost 128,000. The United States has the largest prison system in the world with around 2.2 million behind bars -- one-quarter of all the world's prisoners. The Department of Justice reported earlier this month that in 2001 the nation spent $57 billion on its prison and jail system. Many states struggling with fiscal difficulties are looking for ways to cut costs by releasing nonviolent offenders early. Of those serving life, one in four have no chance of winning parole. The average time served on a life sentence rose from 21 to 29 years between 1991 and 1997 as many states pursued a "get tough on crime" policy. In six states, all life sentences are imposed with no possibility of parole. "Many lifers have been convicted of serious crimes and present an immediate threat to public safety, but many others are housed in prison long after they are dangerous due to overly restrictive parole and commutation policies," said Marc Mauer, co-author of the report. "The 'get tough' (on crime) movement of recent decades has adopted one-size-fits-all sentencing that serves no useful purpose," he said. The report found around 69 percent of lifers were convicted of murder, another 9 percent of rape or sexual assault and 7 percent of armed robbery. Four percent were convicted of drugs offenses, in many cases simple possession. More than 600 people convicted of drug possession were serving life sentences under California's "three strikes and you're out" law, which sends offenders to prison for 25 years to life for a third offense. Among those serving life sentences, an estimated 23,500 suffer from mental illness, the study found. Others include battered women convicted of killing their abusive spouses, juveniles and indigents who received inadequate defense representation. There are no figures on how many juveniles have been sentenced to life imprisonment, but a recent report in Michigan found there were at least 146 people in that state serving life without parole for crimes they committed between the ages of 14 to 16. In 12 states, over 10 percent of the prison population is serving life sentences. In New York and California, the proportion approaches almost 20 percent.

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