Life imprisonment – a sentence in dire need of reform

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14 Jun 2021
Olivia Rope

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In this piece, Olivia Rope, Executive Director of Penal Reform International (PRI), discusses life sentences, a key priority area for PRI. PRI has highlighted the problematic use of life sentences for many years, in relation to their use as an alternative to the death penalty, and more recently through our work with the University of Nottingham to bring international attention - including from the United Nations - to the need for reform in view of increasing use of the sentence. A key publication on the topic is their 2018 policy briefing on life imprisonment

At the beginning of this century there were an estimated 261,000 people serving a formal life imprisonment sentence (formal life imprisonment is used to describe cases where the court explicitly imposes a sentence of imprisonment for life). By 2014 this number had grown to just under half a million people (479,000) – a rise of about 84 per cent.

The number of people serving informal life sentences (when the sentence imposed may not be called ‘life imprisonment’ but may result in the person spending life in prison) remains unknown.

While there are significant disparities in the use of life imprisonment between countries, formal life imprisonment is on the law books of 183 countries and territories; and 65 countries use sentences of life without parole. At least 64 countries have provision for informal or de facto life sentences and at least 50 countries have provision for post‑conviction indefinite preventive detention, but there are almost certainly more.

Mapping the increase in life sentences

Prison populations continue to rise, as do the corresponding levels of prison overcrowding. The increase in life imprisonment is part of this broader trend. A shift away from the death penalty has seen many sentencing codes replacing capital punishment with life imprisonment, or courts commuting sentences as seen in Kazakhstan and Burkina Faso in recent years.

Life sentences are also rising due to ‘hard-line’ approaches to crime. In Poland and Serbia, legislation has recently established life sentences without parole, and in Nicaragua the maximum sentence has been increased from 30 years to life in prison.

Growth has been more dramatic in some countries than in others. In the US, a new report by the Sentencing Project shows that one in seven people in US prisons are serving life, totalling 203,865 people. Women serving life without parole in America increased by 43 per cent between 2008 and 2020, compared to a 29 per cent increase among men. Other countries with a growing reliance on life sentences include India, where over half of the prison population are serving life and South Africa, where numbers rose by 818 per cent between 2000 and 2014.

Why are more people sentenced to life?

It is not because more serious crimes are being committed that there are more people in prison and more people serving life. In fact, as documented in our Global Prison Trends annual series, research shows there is little correlation between crime rates and prison populations. Likewise, an increase in life (or other long) sentences does not reflect a rise in serious offences.

Research also shows that harsher sentences do not deter crime. Drugs policy is a case in point. The steadily rising numbers of people who use drugs worldwide show that decades of increasingly harsh sentences to punish consumption and supply, under the banners of ‘a drug free world’ and ‘a war on drugs’, have failed.  Approximately 1 in 5 people in prison worldwide are there for drug-related offences. Despite this, many countries including New Zealand, Thailand and the US warrant the use of life sentences for (non-violent) drug offences.

Implications for human rights – and prison management

Pioneering research by PRI’s Board members, Dirk van Zyl Smit and Catherine Appleton, has shone a light on the human rights implications of life sentences. Fundamentally, the sentence is disproportionately punitive, especially when used to punish non‑violent crimes such as supplying drugs. The harsher treatment often experienced by people serving life, including through denial of access to rehabilitation programmes in many countries, their solitary confinement for long periods, and the routine use of handcuffs, prevents one of the purposes of imprisonment from being fulfilled – that is, rehabilitation, as enshrined in the UN Nelson Mandela Rules. Life imprisonment without parole, in particular, raises issues of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, and undermines the right to human dignity by removing any hope of release and rendering the rehabilitative purpose of imprisonment essentially meaningless.

A person serving life explains the concept of dignity better than I can put into words: “Life in prison is a slow, torturous death. Maybe it would have been better if they had just given me the electric chair and ended my life instead of a life sentence, letting me rot away in jail. It serves no purpose. It becomes a burden on everybody.”[1]

The steady increase in use of life sentences has led to a rapidly ageing prison population, which presents many problems for prison administrations around health and safeguarding. In the US, 30 per cent of people serving life are 55 or older, amounting to more than 61,000 people. Similar patterns have been seen in Australia, the UK and Japan. Prison accelerates the ageing process, so people serving long sentences frequently have complex health care needs. The management of older people in prison, including those with chronic or terminal illnesses also puts a major strain on prison staff, who are often not trained to deal with their complex health conditions, or provide palliative care. It is also challenging to provide tailored and meaningful rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for older persons or those serving long sentences.

Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the degree to which life sentences violate human rights. Coronavirus has had a disproportionate impact on older persons, but for older people in prison this risk is further exacerbated. It is therefore concerning that the criteria for emergency prison release schemes in some jurisdictions, including the UK, have explicitly excluded life-sentenced people. Such policies ignore the health status of someone who may have served most of their sentence and present no risk to the public.

Building momentum for change

In PRI’s Policy briefing on life imprisonment, published with the University of Nottingham, we set out key recommendations for reforming life sentences. The abolition of life without parole and restricting use of life sentence to only the ‘most serious offences’ are important starting points.

There is some momentum building and more attention being given to the issue of life sentences. Partnerships and collaboration are key to turning the tide on this issue and Penal Reform International continues to advocate and work for practical reforms. In view of this we welcome the recent support of the UN, who have been silent on the issue since 1994. As Ilze Brands Kehris, the UN Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, said at our event on life imprisonment at the 14th UN Crime Congress in March 2021:

The costs and consequences [of life imprisonment] for human dignity and human rights are immense. […] We must join forces to change penal policies and practices to counter the upward trend in the use of life imprisonment.’

[1] From a prisoner interview in Zehr H (1998), Doing Life: Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Sentences. Intercourse, PA: Good Books

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