As of 2014, there were roughly 479,000 persons serving formal life sentences around the world, compared to 261,000 in the year 2000, representing a rise of nearly 84 per cent in 14 years.
Formal life imprisonment exists in 183 out of 216 countries and territories; in 149 of these it is the most severe penalty available. It is also the most severe penalty in current international criminal courts and tribunals. Sixty-seven states allow for life sentences to be imposed on children. Two-thirds of these states are Commonwealth countries and come from the English legal tradition.
What life imprisonment actually means and how it is used varies widely. In some jurisdictions, life or long-term sentences are handed down for a determinate number of years, after which the person is released with or without restriction. In others, a person must serve a minimum number of years, at the end of which they will be considered for release. An increasing number of states have introduced ‘life without parole’ – imprisonment until natural death – with no possibility of review.
In some countries, life sentences are used only for the most serious crimes, such as murder. Many other countries have introduced long or indeterminate sentences for less serious crimes, including non-violent offences. Sentences appear to be getting longer, and ‘life without parole’ is becoming increasingly common.
People serving life sentences are often subjected to particularly harsh conditions and treatment. This can include long periods of segregation, restricted contact with family and other visitors and exclusion from vocational programmes and recreational activities. Life can become literally hopeless, particularly for people serving life without parole. It is common for life-sentenced persons to develop serious mental health problems or for existing conditions to worsen under the strain of indefinite imprisonment.
Despite the dramatic increase in life imprisonment and problematic implementation of the sentence, the international community have not made any moves to address the use of and issues surrounding life imprisonment despite substantial developments in penal policy and practice. As part of our 2020-2023 strategy we will lead civil society engagement to strengthen international human rights standards and protect the rights of those sentenced to life.
Rehabilitation and reintegration