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Life sentences

For very serious cases, an offender may be sentenced to a ‘whole life tariff.’

There are different types of life sentences which are explained here. This is a complex area and there are many misunderstandings around it. When passing a life sentence, a judge must specify the minimum term an offender must spend in prison before becoming eligible to apply for parole. The only exception to this is when a life sentence is passed with a ‘whole life order’meaning that such an offender will spend the rest of their life in prison.

Other life sentences, which specify a minimum term in years, mean that the offender will spend a considerable period in prison and may never be released; if they are released, they will be closely monitored for the rest of their life and could be sent back to prison if they do not obey the terms of their licence.

 

Discretionary life sentences

There are a number of crimes which offenders can get a life sentence because the maximum sentence for the offence, such as armed robbery, is life imprisonment. This does not mean that all offenders charged with those offences will get life. Life sentences are given for cases where the blameworthiness of the offender is particularly high or the offence itself is exceptionally grave. Where the judge decides to give a life sentence, they must also specify a minimum term. This is the minimum number of years that an offender must spend in prison before they can be considered for release.

Once the minimum term has expired, the Parole Board makes the decision as to whether the offender should be released on licence. The offender will only be released if the Parole Board thinks that keeping the offender in prison is no longer necessary for the protection of the public. If an offender is released, they have to obey the rules of their licence and any conditions imposed. These could include meeting with their supervising probation officer on a weekly basis or not consuming alcohol for the rest of their life. If the rules of their licence are broken or the offender commits any other offence, no matter how minor, they will be returned to prison. 

 

Statutory life imprisonment

Parliament has also made provisions that mean that some offenders who are considered ‘dangerous’ or because of their previous convictions may also be sentenced to imprisonment for life. The key provisions are set out here:

1. Life sentence for serious offences

A sentence of imprisonment for life must be imposed, where the following criteria are met:
  • the offender is convicted of a serious offence (defined as carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment or at least 10 years);
  • in the courts opinion the offender poses a significant risk to the public of serious harm by the commission of further specified offences;
  • the maximum penalty for the offence is life imprisonment; and
  • the court considers that the seriousness of the offence justifies the imposition of imprisonment for life.

 

Case study

D is convicted of an offence of causing grievous bodily harm with intent. This carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. He has two previous convictions for assault causing actual bodily harm in the past year. All his offences have been committed whilst he is very drunk – he refuses to have any treatment for his alcohol addiction. The court decides, on the basis of his previous convictions and this refusal, that he poses a significant risk to the public of committing further violent offences whilst he is drunk. The court sentences him to life imprisonment and will fix a minimum term that he must serve based on the facts of this offence.

For further information, please refer to section 225 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (as amended).

Once an offender has served the minimum term set by the court, the Parole Board will decide whether the offender can be released from prison to serve the rest of their sentence on licence in the community. If the decision is taken to release an offender serving a life sentence, their life licence will last for the rest of their life.

 

2. Life sentence for second listed offence

The court must impose a sentence of imprisonment for life, where:

  • the offender is convicted of a listed offence;
  • the court would impose a sentence of imprisonment of 10 years or more for the offence;
  • the offender has a previous conviction for a listed offence for which he received a life sentence with a minimum term of at least 5 years or a sentence of imprisonment of at least 10 years;
  • unless it would be unjust to do so in all the circumstances.

For further information, please refer to section 224A and Schedule 15B of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (as amended).

 

Mandatory life sentences

Parliament has decided that judges must give a life sentence to all offenders found guilty of murder. The judge will set a minimum term an offender must serve before they can be considered for release by the Parole Board.

The minimum term for murder is based on the starting points set out in Schedule 21 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (as amended). This schedule sets out examples of the different types of cases and the starting point which would usually be applied, for example, where the murder is committed with a knife or other weapon, the starting point is 25 years.

The offender will only be released once they have served the minimum term and if the Parole Board is satisfied that detaining the offender is no longer necessary for the protection of the public. If released, an offender serving a life sentence will remain on licence for the rest of their life. They may be recalled to prison at any time if they are considered to be a risk to the public. They do not need to have committed another offence in order to be recalled.

 

Whole life order

For the most serious cases, an offender may be sentenced to a life sentence with a ‘whole life order.’ This means that their crime was so serious that they will never be released from prison.

On 30 June 2012 there were 45 offenders serving a whole life sentence.  These include serial killers Peter Sutcliffe, Ian Brady, Dennis Nilson and Rosemary West.
Data is from the Court Proceedings Database and the Offender Management Caseload Statistics, Jan to March 2012.