How Long Is 20 Years To Life?

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When someone is sentenced to “20 years to life” in prison, it can be a confusing and intimidating term. It begs the question: how long will they actually spend behind bars? The answer is not as straightforward as one might think. In this post, we will explore what “20 years to life” means, how it varies from state to state, and what factors can affect the length of a sentence. By the end, you will have a better understanding of what to expect if you or someone you know is facing this type of sentence.

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The Meaning of “20 Years to Life”

“20 years to life” is a type of sentence that is often given in criminal cases. It means that the defendant will serve a minimum of 20 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole. After 20 years, the defendant will have the opportunity to appear before a parole board and request early release. However, there is no guarantee that they will be granted parole. If the parole board denies their request, they will continue to serve their sentence, which may be for the rest of their life.

This type of sentence is often given in cases where the defendant has committed a serious crime, such as murder. It is intended to provide a significant punishment while also allowing the possibility of rehabilitation and release back into society. However, it is important to note that the defendant may never be released if they are deemed too dangerous or if they do not meet the criteria for parole.

Variations of “20 Years to Life” by State

The length of a “20 years to life” sentence can vary by state. In some states, such as California, the minimum sentence is actually 25 years to life. In other states, such as New York, the minimum sentence is 15 years to life. Additionally, some states have “truth in sentencing” laws, which require defendants to serve a certain percentage of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole. This can result in longer minimum sentences for “20 years to life” sentences.

In some cases, the length of the sentence may also depend on the specifics of the crime. For example, in California, a “20 years to life” sentence for murder may actually be a “15 years to life” sentence if the murder was not premeditated. The length of the sentence may also be affected by other factors, such as the defendant’s criminal history or the use of a weapon during the crime.

Factors that Affect the Length of a “20 Years to Life” Sentence

While the minimum sentence for a “20 years to life” sentence is clear, the actual length of the sentence can vary based on a number of factors. These factors may include:

Parole Board Decisions:

As mentioned earlier, the defendant’s eligibility for parole is not a guarantee that they will be released. Parole boards may consider a number of factors when making their decision, such as the defendant’s behavior in prison and their likelihood of reoffending. If the parole board believes that the defendant is still a danger to society, they may deny their request for parole, resulting in a longer sentence.

Good Behavior:

On the other hand, if the defendant behaves well while in prison, they may be able to shorten their sentence through “good time” credits. These credits are given to inmates who exhibit good behavior, such as following prison rules and participating in rehabilitation programs. Good time credits can shave off a significant amount of time from a “20 years to life” sentence.


Defendants may also be able to reduce their sentence through appeals. If their case is appealed and a higher court finds that there was a mistake made during the trial, such as a violation of their rights or evidence that was improperly admitted, the sentence may be reduced or even overturned.

Sentence Modifications:

In some cases, the defendant or their legal team may be able to request a modification of their sentence. This could involve a request for a reduction in sentence or a change in the terms of their parole eligibility. However, sentence modifications are not always granted and may require strong evidence and a compelling argument.

Prison Overcrowding:

Finally, the length of a “20 years to life” sentence may be affected by prison overcrowding. If a prison is at capacity or has limited resources, it may be more difficult for inmates to be released on parole, even if they have met all of the eligibility criteria. This can result in longer sentences for inmates who would otherwise be eligible for release.


In conclusion, a “20 years to life” sentence can be a daunting prospect for anyone facing criminal charges. However, it is important to understand that the actual length of the sentence can vary based on a number of factors, such as the state where the sentence was given, the specifics of the crime, and the defendant’s behavior while in prison. While parole may provide an opportunity for early release, it is not a guarantee and may depend on the decisions of a parole board. If you or someone you know is facing this type of sentence, it is important to seek legal advice and understand all of the options available.

How Long Is 20 Years To Life?
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