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 prisoner is released with or without restriction. In others, a prisoner 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. Indefinite prison sentences are used in particular by states abolishing the death penalty as an alternative sanction. At the same time, these states widen the net, introducing ‘life without parole’ for offences which were not formerly capital offences.
While the application and terms of imprisonment may vary, there has been an increase globally in the use of long-term sentences. Between the years 2000 and 2014, there was an increase of almost 84 per cent in the number of those serving formal life sentences worldwide. However, since a United Nations report on life imprisonment 20 years ago, there has been no international assessment of the use of and issues surrounding life imprisonment, despite substantial developments in penal policy and practice.
Locking someone up with no hope of ever being released is effectively another form of a death sentence. While the most serious crimes may call for a long-term sentence, and some offenders may remain in prison for life, nobody should be deprived of the possibility of a parole review process. Such a review should:
- be based on clear criteria founded in law
- meet due process safeguards
- be subject to appeal or regular review
- be based on individual assessment, taking into account whether or not the offender has been rehabilitated and whether or not they still pose a risk to society.
Life-sentenced prisoners are often subjected to worse conditions and harsher treatment than other prisoners. 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 prisoners serving life without parole. It is common for life-sentenced prisoners to develop serious mental health problems or for existing conditions to worsen under the strain of indefinite imprisonment.
The growing number of prisoners serving life and long-term sentences has a wider impact on prison systems too. Parole cannot be used as a milestone or incentive for people who have nothing to lose, which makes prisons less safe and the job of prison managers and staff more difficult.
The increasing use of long-term imprisonment and life sentences without parole is also a major contributor to the problem of prison overcrowding, one of the most serious challenges facing prison systems around the world.