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Life imprisonment is a term used for a particular kind of sentence of imprisonment. The effect of such a sentence varies between jurisdictions. Life imprisonment is regarded by many as a humane alternative to the death penalty for the most serious crimes.
Interpretation in North America
- In the United States, life imprisonment usually lasts until the prisoner dies. Sometimes life terms are given in sentences that are longer than how long the prisoner is expected to live on purpose, e.g. a 200-year sentence for multiple counts of murder. In actuality, a life sentence does not always mean "imprisonment for life." In many states, one can be paroled out of a life sentence after a decade or more has passed. For example, sentences of "15 years to life" or "25 years to life" may be given. Even when a sentence specifically denies the possibility of parole, government officials may have the power to grant amnesty or reprieves, or commute a sentence to time served. Under the federal criminal code, however, with respect to offenses committed after December 1, 1987, parole has been abolished for all sentences handed down by the federal system, including life sentences, so a life sentence from a federal court will result in imprisonment for the life of the defendant, unless a pardon or reprieve is granted by the President.
- In Mexico, life imprisonment is any long and indeterminate sentence ranging from 20 years up to a maximum of 40 years. The Mexican Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional because it is cruel and unusual punishment. Since then, many American criminals have fled to Mexico specifically because they know Mexico will not extradite them. The difference between the American and Mexican views of life imprisonment is currently causing high levels of friction in cross-border politics.
- In Canada, life imprisonment is mandatory for murder. The non-parole period is 25 years for 1st degree murder, and for 2nd degree murder, the non-parole period ranges between 10 and 25 years. If a non-parole period is more than 15 years, the prisoner can apply to the National Parole Board for parole consideration after 15 years. Other crimes, including robbery, rape and burglary, have a maximum sentence of life. In these cases, the non-parole period is seven years.
Interpretation in Europe
- In the United Kingdom it does not mean, as one might expect, "imprisonment for life", but a prison sentence of indeterminate length. In many cases the Home Secretary sets the "tariff", or length of term, for prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment. The average sentence is about 15 years before the first parole hearing, although those convicted for heinous offenses serve their sentences significantly longer, and some receive "whole life tariffs" and die in prison, such as Myra Hindley and Harold Shipman; there are currently around 25 people serving whole life tarrifs in the UK. Prisoners jailed for life are released on a life licence if the parole board authorises their release.
- In Greece, a "life term" lasts for 25 years, and one can apply for parole in 16 years. If sentenced to more than one life term, a person must serve at least 20 years before being eligible for parole. Other sentences will run concurrently, with 25-year terms being the maximum and with parole possible after three-fifths of this term are served.
- 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. If the verdict in the original trial includes an explicite finding of "exceptional gravity of guilt" (in German: "Besondere Schwere der Schuld") then the possibility of parole after 15 years is excluded and the prisoner can apply for the first time after 18 years. After about 10 years of imprisonment, a specialised chamber (technical term in German: "Strafvollstreckungskammer") of the criminal court which is responsible for the case sets a recommended minimum term to be served depending on the individual characteristics of the crime, in other words, a minimum time which is deemed just and appropriate for the gravity of the crime. Release of a prisoner on parole requires (1) that this minimum time is served and (2) that a psychological expert opinion finds no further dangerousness for this prisoner and a positive social prognosis. In reality, a finding of "exceptional gravity of guilt" drastically increases the time before parole is granted. The average time served for a life sentence in Germany is around 20 years. Around 20% of all people serving life imprisonment stay in prison until their natural death.
- In Poland, the prisoner sentenced to life imprisonment must serve at least 25 years in order to be eligible to parole. Moreover, during sentencing, the court may set higher minimum term than above. Since the introduction of life imprisonment in 1997, such minimum term was never higher than 40 years.
- In Italy, life imprisonment (ergastolo in Italian) has an indeterminate length. After 10 years the prisoner may be conceded a permission for a day work outside the prison (he must be back at night). After 26 years he may be paroled. It is not uncommon for people considered "socially dangerous" to serve 50 years or more. Terminally ill or old prisoners are usually sent to house confinement.
- In Sweden, life imprisonment is a sentence of indeterminate length. But since the law states that the most severe punishment is "prison for ten years or life", it is in practice never shorter than ten years. After that time the prisoner can apply to the government for parole. The government may also assign a determined length to the sentence.
- In Finland, life imprisonment is a sentence of theoretically indeterminate length. While the law does not force to release the prisoner after certain amount of time, the president usually grants pardons for those who have served for more than 10 years and have exhibited good behaviour.
- In the People's Republic of China, the term of life imprisonment depends upon the nature of the crime. Those serving life sentences for non-violent crimes can apply for parole after ten years; however this does not apply to those serving life sentences for violent crimes such as murder, rape, robbery and kidnapping, who are to remain imprisoned until their deaths.
- In Australia, life imprisonment is of indeterminate length. The sentencing judge usually sets a non-parole period, usually of 15-25 years but could be more, after which the prisoner can apply for parole. In the case of a criminal who has committed particularly heinous crimes, the sentencing judge may recommend that the person is "never to be released".
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