An estimated 479,000 people in prison globally are serving a formal life sentence as of 2014.
Formal life sentences are increasing also due to punitive responses to crime. In Poland and Serbia, legislation has recently established life sentences without parole. Poland also lengthened the minimum period before those serving a life sentence can be considered for release from 25 to 35 years, and extended supervision of those released to cover the rest of their lives. In Nicaragua, congress approved life imprisonment in January 2021, moving the country’s maximum sentence from 30 years to life in prison.
This trend is also reflected in the fact that life imprisonment is consistently being imposed for a wider range of offences for which a death sentence would not have been considered. Legislative proposals in Colombia seek to introduce life imprisonment in cases of sex offences against minors, and proposals in England and Wales also foresee whole life sentences as the ‘default’ for premeditated murder involving child victims. Life sentences are increasingly imposed for non-violent offences. In New Zealand, supplying or dealing a Class A drug (such as methamphetamine) is punishable by up to life imprisonment, and in several Asian countries, including Hong Kong and the Philippines, trafficking and/or manufacturing drugs can attract a life sentence.
183 out of 216 countries and territories have formal life imprisonment.
All states of the US, with the exception of Alaska, can impose a life sentence for non-violent offences, and in 22 states these sentences can be without the possibility of parole. Prisons in the US hold the largest proportion of people serving life sentences internationally. According to new analysis by the Sentencing Project from February 2021, one in seven people in US prisons are serving life, totalling 203,865 people. Women serving life without parole increased by 43 per cent between 2008 and 2020, compared to a 29 per cent increase among men. The US also remains an outlier by allowing life without parole for crimes committed by children (under 18 years of age). However, that trend is reversing following a Supreme Court ruling on the matter in 2017. The federal government and 29 states are reviewing cases or granting new sentences, and 24 states have now outlawed life sentences without parole where the crime was committed by a child.
Reforms to reduce the use of life imprisonment have been seen in several states over the past year. In Mozambique, an accumulation of sentences was reduced from 50 years to 30 in 2020. Furthermore, a number of reforms are bolstering opportunities and improving procedures for release, such as in Ireland where the decision on release of a life-sentenced person will shift from a political body to a statutory parole board. In Lithuania, a 2019 law requires routine release consideration for those serving life sentences, paving the way for release after 20 years are served – a move approved by the European Court of Human Rights. In Belize, where life without parole was declared unconstitutional in 2016, amendments to the Criminal Code have introduced the requirement for a parole board to consider the release of life-sentenced persons.
65 countries impose sentences of life without parole.
Despite the vulnerability to COVID-19 for many people serving life sentences (due to age or health status), life sentences were one category of people explicitly excluded from release schemes in a number of countries, such as England and Wales, Indonesia and South Africa. There were, however, some instances where reductions in sentences favourably impacted people with a life sentence.
In Cameroon, a presidential decree commuted and readjusted sentences across the entire prison population; life sentences were reduced to 25 years. In Georgia, the Amnesty Act of January 2021 changes life sentences to a determinate sentence of 20 years.
Conditions for people serving life sentences remain harsh and have worsened during the global pandemic. Data from Ukraine shows that between 2010 and 2018 a total of 256 life-sentenced people died in prison, constituting around a sixth of the life-sentenced population.
The average time served before death was just under 10 years in prison, suggesting that life sentences are served under harsh conditions and have a serious impact on health.107 In January 2021, the European Court of Human Rights held that routine handcuffing of people in Russian prisons by virtue of their life sentence lacked sufficient justification and amounted to degrading treatment. Applicants in the case had been subjected to routine handcuffing behind their backs every time they left their cells for various periods of time up to 19 years.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.