Life imprisonment

Life imprisonment is any sentence of imprisonment for a crime under which convicted criminals are to remain in prison for the rest of their lives or indefinitely until pardoned, paroled, or commuted to a fixed term. Crimes that warrant life imprisonment are usually violent and/or dangerous. Examples of crimes that result in life sentences are murder, torture, terrorism, child abuse resulting in death, rape, espionage, treason, drug trafficking, drug possession, human trafficking, severe fraud and financial crimes, aggravated criminal damage, arson, kidnapping, burglary, and robbery, piracy, aircraft hijacking, and genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, severe cases of child pornography, or any three felonies in the case of a three-strikes law.

Common law murder is one of the only crimes for which life imprisonment is mandatory; mandatory life sentences for murder are given in several countries, including the United States and Canada.[1] For especially heinous murders that pass specific requirements, capital punishment is also a possible sentence in some jurisdictions.

Life imprisonment (as a maximum term) can also be imposed, in certain countries, for traffic offences causing death.[2] Life imprisonment is not used in all countries; Portugal was the first country to abolish life imprisonment, in 1884.[3]

Where life imprisonment is a possible sentence, there may also exist formal mechanisms for requesting parole after a certain period of prison time. This means that a convict could be entitled to spend the rest of the sentence (until that individual dies) outside prison. Early release is usually conditional on past and future conduct, possibly with certain restrictions or obligations. In contrast, when a fixed term of imprisonment has ended, the convict is free. The length of time served and the conditions surrounding parole vary. Being eligible for parole does not necessarily ensure that parole will be granted. In some countries, including Sweden, parole does not exist but a life sentence may – after a successful application – be commuted to a fixed-term sentence, after which the offender is released as if the sentence served was that originally imposed.

In many countries around the world, particularly in the Commonwealth, courts have the authority to pass prison terms that may amount to de facto life imprisonment, meaning that the sentence would last longer than the human life expectancy.[4] For example, courts in South Africa have handed out at least two sentences that have exceeded a century, while in Tasmania, Australia, Martin Bryant, the perpetrator of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, received 35 life sentences plus 1,035 years without parole. In the United States, James Holmes, perpetrator of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooting, received 12 consecutive life sentences plus 3,318 years without the possibility of parole.[5] In the case of mass murder at the US, Parkland mass murderer Nikolas Cruz was sentenced to 34 consecutive terms of life imprisonment (without parole) for murdering 17 people and injuring another 17 at a school.[6] Any sentence without parole effectively means a sentence cannot be suspended; a life sentence without parole therefore means that in the absence of extraordinary circumstances such as pardon, amnesty or humanitarian grounds (e.g. imminent death), the prisoner will certainly spend the rest of his life in prison, regardless of whether s/he was of good behaviour or not. In several countries where de facto life terms are used, a release on humanitarian grounds (also known as compassionate release) is commonplace, such as in the case of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. Since the behaviour of a prisoner serving life sentence without parole is not relevant to the execution of such sentence, many people among lawyers, penitentiary specialists, criminologists, but most of all among human rights organizations oppose that punishment. In particular, they emphasize that when faced with a prisoner with no hope of being released ever, the prison has no means to discipline such convict effectively. This way, s/he can turn into a furious or even murderous beast at any time, such as in the case of Thomas Silverstein.

A few countries allow for a minor to be given a life sentence without parole; these include but are not limited to: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina (only over the age of 16),[7] Australia, Belize, Brunei, Cuba, Dominica, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, and the United States. According to a University of San Francisco School of Law study, only the U.S. had minors serving such sentences in 2008.[8] In 2009, Human Rights Watch estimated that there were 2,589 youth offenders serving life sentences without the possibility for parole in the U.S.[9][10] Since the start of 2020, that number has fallen to 1,465.[11][12] The United States has the highest population of prisoners serving life sentences for both adults and minors, at a rate of 50 people per 100,000 (1 out of 2,000) residents imprisoned for life.[13]

  1. ^ Government of Canada, Department of Justice (23 July 2015). "How sentences are imposed - Canadian Victims Bill of Rights". Retrieved 26 August 2023.
  2. ^ "Penalties for Drunk Driving Vehicular Homicide" (PDF) (PDF). Mothers Against Drunk Driving. May 2012. Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 September 2013.
  3. ^ "Crime > Punishment > Minimum life sentence to serve before eligibility for requesting parole: Countries Compared". Retrieved 3 July 2023.
  4. ^ McLaughlin, Eliott C.; Brown, Pamela (August 2013). "Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro sentenced to life, plus 1,000 years". CNN. Archived from the original on 10 June 2017. Retrieved 12 May 2017.
  5. ^ "Snapshot: Australia's longest sentences". SBS News. Retrieved 3 June 2021.
  6. ^ "Florida school mass shooter sentenced to life in prison". Today. Singapore. 3 November 2022. Retrieved 3 November 2022.
  7. ^ Mecon. "InfoLEG – Ministerio de Economía y Finanzas Públicas – Argentina". Archived from the original on 9 January 2016.
  8. ^ "Laws of Other Nations". Archived from the original on 27 June 2015.
  9. ^ "The Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States Archived 27 June 2015 at the Wayback Machine", 2008.
  10. ^ "State Distribution of Youth Offenders Serving Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP)". Human Rights Watch. 2 October 2009. Archived from the original on 8 June 2011. Retrieved 3 August 2011.
  11. ^ "Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview".
  12. ^ "US States Fail to Protect Children's Rights". Human Rights Watch. 13 September 2022. Retrieved 11 October 2022.
  13. ^ "The Sentencing Project News – New Publication: Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America". Archived from the original on 18 October 2013.