Fact or Fiction: Not All “Life Sentences” Around the World Are Actually for Life

This is true! In most of Western Europe, for example, a “life sentence” actually means that after a minimum term of 12 to 25 years, the prisoner becomes eligible for parole. However, in most of Europe, prisoners who are considered to be dangerous can be sentenced to “indefinite detention” despite eligibility for parole.

Life Sentences” that Aren’t Really for Life

Image Source: huffingtonpost.co.uk

Image Source: huffingtonpost.co.uk

In England and Wales, most prisoners with “life sentences” will be eligible for parole or “early release” after a minimum term set by the judge. The average minimum term is now 15 years. In some exceptionally grave cases, however, a judge may order that a life sentence should actually mean life by making a “whole life order.”

In France, inmates jailed for “life” are eligible for parole after 18 years served, or after 22 years for repeat offenders. In cases of child murder involving rape or torture, the Court can impose a term of 30 years or decide that the defendant cannot be paroled.

In Germany, the minimum time to be served for a sentence of “life” imprisonment is 15 years, after which the prisoner can apply for parole.

Prisoners serving a “life sentence” in Denmark are entitled to a pardoning hearing after 12 years. Prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment serve an average of 16 years, more for cases considered to be particularly grave.

In Poland the prisoner serving a “life sentence” must serve at least 25 years before becoming eligible for parole. The highest maximum prison term is 50 years.

Holland…a European exception. Since 1878, after the abolition of the death penalty in Holland, life imprisonment has almost always meant serving time in prison until death. Holland is one of the few countries in Europe where prisoners are not granted a review for parole after a given time. Though the prisoner can appeal for parole, it must be granted by Royal Decree and is almost never successful.

Life Sentences in the United States

Image Source: smartasset.com

Image Source: smartasset.com

In the United States, all states except Alaska allow a sentence of “life without the possibility of parole” or LWOP. Sometimes technically finite sentences are handed out (e.g., 100+ years) that exceed a century and thus are seen as being ‘de facto’ life sentences.

Additionally, for particularly heinous crimes, courts will sometimes tack additional years onto the sentence, in addition to life imprisonment, in order to ensure that no amount of good behavior could ever result in the prisoner being set free.

For example, Ariel Castro, perpetrator of the Cleveland abductions, was sentenced to “life plus 1,000 years,” for the 937 criminal counts of rape, kidnapping, and aggravated murder stemming from those kidnappings, which he pled guilty to. James Holmes, the gunman who murdered 12 people and injured 70 others when he carried out a carefully planned shooting at a movie theatre in Colorado, was handed life sentences for each fatality and the maximum 3,318 years in prison.

Countries That Have Abolished the Life Sentence

Swedish Prison Cell

A Swedish prison cell. Image Source: mic.com

Portugal was the first country in the world to abolish life imprisonment in 1884. Other countries that have abolished it include: Mexico, Spain, Vatican City, Norway, Serbia, most South and Central American countries, Mozambique, and Republic of the Congo.

But even countries that have abolished the life sentence often keep prisoners incarcerated indefinitely if they pose a threat to public safety. Norway, for example has no life sentences. Norwegian Anders Breivik was convicted of killing 77 people in 2011, and was sentenced to the maximum 21 years allowable by law. But Breivik may be indefinitely detained for as long as he continues to pose a threat to society. This may lead to sentences being indefinitely extended, essentially leading to offenders spending the rest of their lives in prison despite never receiving a life sentence.

What do you think? Are life sentences for life a good idea or should prisoners be eligible for parole after serving a minimum term?

3 comments on “Fact or Fiction: Not All “Life Sentences” Around the World Are Actually for Life

  1. Avatar for Derek Pakiz
    • Avatar for Derek Pakiz
      Garfield Campbell Jr. on

      Wow, I was so shocked at the history of other countries. It is really sad that America is so far behind. Most of the citizen of the US don’t even have this knowledge of the judicial system.
      I think that prisoners should be eligible for parole base on the seriousness of the crime they were accused of committing. As well as their behave while serving their sentence. It is simply just inhumane….
      Thank you to whoever wrote this article. Great information!

  2. Avatar for Derek Pakiz
    Caytee on

    I think that when a person is a mass murderer, serial rapist; terrorist; and treasonist the person should be executed and it should not involve decades of imprisonment after all reasonable doubt has been ruled out or the person confesses.

    To put a person in prison for natural life is a cruel slow death. Most judicial systems just let inmates grow old and waste away. Nothing is done to stimulate their minds. In some instances inmates must work supporting the business of prison offsetting the cost of their incarceration. If and when they serve these minimal years and they are put back into society they are not prepared for life beyond the walls.

    In the Bible a life payment is what was required if you deliberately murdered. Execution removes the risk of that person not any other person from murdering again or raping again or kidnapping again. Knowing they can not receive any other penalty for the crimes they committed that put them in prison has led many to continue a life of crime while incarcerated. No one should go to prison for a crime and be killed raped beaten and or robbed by another person because of the attitude “well, what you going to if I already have LWOP or LW. Can’t give me more than that.”

    Incarceration is a business; especially in USA. Billions of dollars are earned and make others rich while great numbers of humanity are forced to live in squalor conditions worse than the poorest person in the world endures.

    Examples, in USA most states require you to ensure your dog is not left outside or inside without food and water or extreme conditions. Although most prisons have heat in places in the southern portion of the country inmates must endure the extreme heat in summer months because AC is considered a luxury. Yet cooling centers are set up for the “free” citizens.

    Food industry is required to serve food that meets basic health regulations. Yet inmates are often served food marked “Not for human consumption.” Or that have severe pests issues. If a restaurant is found guilty of what a prison is allowed to do, the same government that operates the prisons will issue fines or shut down the food facility. But the prisons operate without correction.

    And all businesses are required to operate within safety requirements and if employee is injured they must seek immediate care for them. Same for the other human warehouses of society i.e. nursing homes and daycare facilities. Yet inmates are routinely denied decent care even being punished in some cases where they go to medical but the determination is there is nothing “wrong” so they are charged with lying. Aches and pains ignored and medical staff truly issue OTC like Tylenol and Advil. And most medical office staffed by CNAs and PNs not RNs not CRNP and doctors do not come out at night to di the work they are paid to do and at times this neglect results in death or life long issues.

    There is a place for execution but life in prison is a slow tortuous death. LWOP if you are sentenced at 80 maybe doable but at 21 and your gene pool is longterm into the 90s who wants to live in worse care than an animal does that long? How is that justice.


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