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July 6, 2021

Reviewing realities of life imprisonment around the globe

The Economist has this effective lengthy article about life imprisonment around the world under the headline "As the death penalty becomes less common, life imprisonment becomes more so." I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

Lifelong imprisonment seems to be spreading as a punishment for the worst crimes.  In 2019 Serbia passed “Tijana’s law” in response to the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl.  It allows judges to sentence some murderers and rapists of children to life in prison without parole.  In June last year, after the gang rape of a 13-year-old girl by soldiers, Colombia overturned its constitutional ban on life sentences.  Britain’s government recently proposed legislation to reduce the age at which judges can impose “whole-life” sentences from 21 to 18.

The most heinous crimes are rare, but the world’s population of lifers is large and probably growing.  According to the World Prison List the population of inmates rose by 20%, to 10.4m, from 2000 to 2015. Meanwhile between 2000 and 2014 the number of people serving life sentences worldwide rose by 84%, to 479,000, according to “Life Imprisonment”, a recent book.  America held 40% of them, and more than 80% of those have no prospect of parole.  The Sentencing Project, a think-tank in Washington, DC, reckons that the number of Americans serving life sentences without parole rose by two-thirds, to 56,000, between 2003 and 2020. Turkey, India and Britain also lock up a lot of people for life.  South African jails hold nearly 17,000 lifers, up from 500 in 1995.  In 2014 some sort of formal life sentence was on the books of 183 countries and territories....

Opponents of life without parole hope to repeat the success of campaigners against capital punishment. Since 1976 more than 70 countries have abolished the death penalty.  The number of executions worldwide in 2020 fell for the fifth year running to its lowest in a decade, says Amnesty International, a human-rights group. In America just 17 people were executed last year.  If campaigners have their way, life sentences will be the next sort to be branded cruel and rendered unusual.

Making this case is not simple.  For one thing, life-sentencing regimes vary enormously.  Some are relatively lenient, as in Finland, where few “lifers” spend more than 15 years in prison.  Others are staggeringly harsh.  Some American states still lock up juvenile offenders for life. China imposes the sentence on corrupt officials.  Australia and Britain do so for drug offences.  Life with a chance of parole may not be much better than without it if parole is granted rarely.  Life sentences can be disguised as indeterminate or very long fixed-term sentences.  El Salvador, which does not impose life sentences, can lock people up for 60 years....

Some campaigners use the courts to curb life sentences.  A clutch of treaties prohibit governments from inflicting degrading treatment on anyone, including prisoners. In 2013 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that offenders have at the outset of their sentences a right to hope for eventual release. The International Criminal Court says after 25 years sentences must be reviewed.  “Twenty-five years is increasingly established in international law as the maximum minimum,” says Dirk van Zyl Smit, Ms Appleton’s co-author....

Malawi may become a model for countries seeking to avoid simply replacing capital punishment with life sentences. After its High Court struck down the death penalty as mandatory for murder in 2007, the top appeal court ordered that more than 150 condemned prisoners be resentenced. (In practice, all were serving life, since Malawi has executed no one since 1992.) It directed judges to consider the circumstances of each to determine whether the death penalty should be upheld, converted to life or to a shorter sentence....

Of the prisoners who have been resentenced, one was handed a life sentence but more than 140 have been released after completing shorter prison terms.  To prepare the way, workers on the project fanned out to villages to explain what the ex-cons had endured and to find out whether they would be welcomed back.

July 6, 2021 at 11:03 PM | Permalink


I am a Spanish lawyer, my country abolished the life sentences withold parole from 1870. (Many latin countries as Ecuador, Portugal, Uruguay, Panama...abolished the death penalty, and also all kind of life sentences made more of a century). The consequences weren`t good; the problem with article of The Economist we must listen to what penal reformis thave to say—but we also encourage them to pay attention to what they don’t say, which is often more important; vgr :enneth Allen McDuff, Darryl Kemp, Joe Morse, Harvey Louis Carrignan, Bennie Demps, Eddie Simon Wein, Mad Dog Taborsky and on and on...
Student 'strangled by freed monster' https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/dec/10/spain.gilestremlett

Posted by: Alfonso Taboada | Jul 9, 2021 1:11:47 PM

I also live in an European country, and the harshest penalty here is really close to a sentence of imprisonment for a period of natural life: the French penal code states that, for a list of specific offences with particular circumstances, courts may decide that a person sentenced to life is ineligible to parole for the whole duration of his or her sentence. However, the convict still retains the possibility of asking for a review of his or her sentence after a minimal period of 30 years: if commutation is granted, the sentence is reduced to a 30yo to life term (the prisoner must still follow the parole process before a hypothetical release). I think this provision was meant to avoid possible issues with the European court of Human rights.

This a very rare penalty (3 or 4 prisoners, and one of them actually died in prison some months ago), and the lesser life sentence with possibility of parole after 30 years is also uncommon (20 or 30 prisoners, i think). usual life sentences (possibility of release after 18 or 22 years) are not that common too: courts will impose a life sentence only if there are aggravating circumstances.

It's difficult to know the fate of convicts sentenced to life: parole applications are now treated more cautiously, and right to apply for release doesn't mean right to be released (as a matter of fact, the man whose case led to the introduction of a "whole life sentence penalty" during the early 90s recently died in prison). The French judicial administration is not known for its openness or its ability to communicate, so it's difficult to have a comprehensive picture of the sentencing adjustement process for very long sentences, but i've read somewhere that 400-450 offenders sentenced to life were released between 2000 and 2010 (a few of them were actually sentenced to death before 1981 but won a reprieve) ; it's interesting to see what happened to these men and women during this decade and the following decade: more than a dozen came back to prison mostly for breach of parole obligations, and there were some serious criminal case. One of them committed a murder, and it caused a legitimate public outcry, with calls to repeal parole. No significant reform was enacted though, but it's sure that judges and prison workers who handle the parole process are a lot more cautious. "one" is always too many, and a murder is a tragedy, not a statistic, but numbers show that recidivism doesn't seem a serious issue for released lifers. I'm not sure what to think about ultra-long prison sentences, prison officials oppose long prison sentences without a comprehensive prospect of release because they think prison population wouldn't be manageable. And i'm not sure what the people here really think (French people have a love-hate attitude towards harsh sentences, such as life imprisonment or death penalty. They may support this kind of sentence, but when they are called for jurors duty, it's a different matter)

Posted by: Raxatou | Jul 29, 2021 3:25:59 AM

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