How long is a life sentence?

By Jedidiah McKeehan

“The Defendant is sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.” [Gavel slams down] How many times have you heard something like that on a TV show or a movie?

How long exactly is a life sentence, though? Does the person stay in prison until they die? That seems the logical answer, but is that the actual answer?

Tennessee Code Annotated section 40-35-501(h)(2) and (3) state, “There shall be no release eligibility for a person committing first degree murder, on or after July 1, 1995, and receiving a sentence of imprisonment for life. The person shall serve one hundred percent of 60 years less sentence credits earned and retained. However, no sentence reduction credits shall operate to reduce the sentence imposed by the court by more than fifteen percent.

“There shall be no release eligibility for a defendant receiving a sentence of imprisonment for life without possibility of parole for first degree murder, attempted first degree murder, or aggravated rape of a child.”

Okay, so reading the statute, it looks like imprisonment for life equals 60 years. If someone commits a crime when they are 20 years old, they will not get out of prison until they are 80 years old. The life expectancy in the US in 2021 was 76.1 years, so even very young offenders will be in prison for the entirety of their expected life.

What about those sentence reduction credits? How do those work? In prison, there is a whole range of things for which inmates can receive credits for days served. For example, when the inmates go on work detail, they can often receive an additional day of credit.

The law says that the most credits someone serving life can receive are fifteen percent of their sentence, which would reduce the time in prison for someone from 60 years to 51 years. That would mean that the best-case scenario for that same 20-year-old who is serving a life sentence would be for them to be released when they are 71 years old instead of being released when they are 80 years old.

Jedidiah McKeehan is an attorney practicing in Knox County and surrounding counties. He works in many areas, including family law, criminal, and personal injury. Visit for more information about this legal issue and other legal issues.