Life imprisonment (also known as a life sentence, lifelong incarceration, or life incarceration) is any sentence of imprisonment for a crime under which convicted persons are to remain in prison for the rest of their lives or until paroled. Crimes for which a person could receive this sentence include murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, blasphemy, terrorism, severe child abuse, rape, child rape, espionage, treason, high treason, drug dealing, drug trafficking, possession of large quantities of drugs or other scheduled substances, human trafficking, severe cases of fraud, severe cases of financial crimes, aggravated criminal damage in English law, and aggravated cases of arson, kidnapping, burglary, or robbery which result in death or grievous bodily harm, piracy, and in certain cases genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, certain war crimes or any three felonies in case of three strikes law.
Life imprisonment can, in certain cases, also be imposed for traffic offenses causing death, as a maximum term. Canada and some U.S. states allow judges to impose life imprisonment for such offenses.
This sentence does not exist in all countries. Portugal was the first country in the world to abolish life imprisonment by the prison reforms of Sampaio e Melo in 1884. However, where life imprisonment is a possible sentence, there may also be formal mechanisms to request parole after a certain period of imprisonment. This means that a convict could be entitled to spend the rest of the sentence (until that individual dies) outside prison. Early release is usually conditional depending on past and future conduct, possibly with certain restrictions or obligations. In contrast, when a fixed term of imprisonment has ended, the convict is free. The United States leads in life sentences, at a rate of 50 people per 100,000 residents imprisoned for life.
The length of time and the conditions surrounding parole vary greatly for each jurisdiction. In some places, convicts are entitled to apply for parole relatively early, in others, only after several decades. However, the time until being entitled to apply for parole does not necessarily tell anything about the actual date of parole being granted. Article 110 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) stipulates that for the gravest forms of crimes (such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide), a prisoner ought to serve two-thirds of a fixed sentence, or 35–50 years in the case of a life sentence. The highest determined prison sentence that can be imposed in the ICC, aside from life imprisonment, is 30 years (article 77, section 1a). After this period, the court will review the sentence to determine whether or not it should be reduced.
Some technically finite sentences are handed out, especially in the U.S., that exceed the human maximum life span and are therefore seen as de facto life sentences. Additionally, for particularly heinous crimes, courts will sometimes add 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 person being set free. For example, Ariel Castro, the perpetrator who kidnapped Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina Dejesus from the streets of Cleveland between 2002 and 2004, was sentenced to "life plus 1,000 years", in 2013, for the 937 criminal counts of kidnapping, rape, and aggravated murder stemming from those kidnappings, to which he pleaded guilty. He committed suicide in his prison cell one month later. Courts in South Africa have handed out at least two sentences that have exceeded a century (to Moses Sithole and Eugene de Kock) and were thus symbolic life sentences.
Unlike other areas of criminal law, sentences handed to minors do not differ from those given to legal adults. A few countries worldwide allow for minors to be given lifetime sentences that have no provision for eventual release. Countries that allow life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juveniles include Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina (only juveniles between the ages of 16 and 18, as those under the age of 16 cannot be held accountable for their actions and cannot be tried), Australia, Belize, Brunei, Cuba, Dominica, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, and the United States. Of these, only the United States currently has minors serving such sentences. In the U.S., life sentences without parole for juveniles who are under 18 cannot be given automatically, and are only for certain cases of first-degree murder, once the judge and jury have considered mitigating and aggravating factors (the death penalty is no longer constitutional for minors in the U.S.). As of 2009, Human Rights Watch had calculated that there were 2,589 youth offenders serving life without parole in the United States.
In 2011 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that sentencing minors to life without parole, automatically (as the result of a statute) or as the result of a judicial decision, for crimes other than intentional homicide, violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishments", in the case of Graham v. Florida.
Graham v. Florida was a significant case in juvenile justice. In Jacksonville, Florida, Terrence J. Graham tried to rob a restaurant along with three adolescent accomplices. During the robbery one of Graham's accomplices had a metal bar that he used to hit the restaurant manager twice in the head. Once arrested, Graham was charged with attempted armed robbery and armed burglary with assault/battery. The maximum sentence he faced from these charges was life without the possibility of parole, and the prosecutor wanted to charge him as an adult. During the trial, Graham pleaded guilty to the charges, resulting in three years of probation, one year of which had to be served in jail. Since he had been awaiting trial in jail, he already served six months and therefore was released after six additional months.
Within six months of his release, Graham was involved in another robbery. Since he violated the conditions of his probation, his probation officer reported to the trial court about his probation violations a few weeks before Graham turned 18 years old. It was a different judge presiding over his trial for the probation violations a year later. While Graham denied any involvement of the robbery, he did admit to fleeing from the police. The trial court found that Graham violated his probation by "committing a home invasion robbery, possessing a firearm, and associating with persons engaged in criminal activity", and sentenced him to 15 years for the attempted armed robbery plus life imprisonment for the armed burglary. The life sentence Graham received meant he had a life sentence without the possibility of parole, "because Florida abolished their parole system in 2003".
Graham's case was presented to the United States Supreme Court, with the question of whether juveniles should receive life without the possibility of parole in non-homicide cases. The Justices eventually ruled that such a sentence violated the juvenile's 8th Amendment rights, protecting them from punishments that are disproportionate to the crime committed, resulting in the abolition of life sentences without the possibility of parole in non-homicide cases for juveniles.
The Supreme Court considered, in the spring of 2012, the question of whether or not minors should be sentenced, at least automatically, to life without parole for any crime at all, including the only cases in which such a punishment was at that time an option: first-degree murder with aggravating factors (felony murder, where life without parole was then given as an option to juveniles, and where an adult in the same context could be charged with capital murder and given life or the death penalty). On 25 June 2012, according to the Catholic News Service (CNS) news brief posted that day, the Court ruled on the case of Miller v. Alabama in a 5–4 decision and with the majority opinion written by Associate Justice Elena Kagan that life in prison without parole as an automatic sentence would be considered unconstitutional in all cases in the United States. The majority opinion stated that the judge should take into account mitigating factors and other information that is usually of relevance during the sentencing phase. Such factors would include, but are not limited to: information on the nature of the crime and the victim(s), age, record, potential for rehabilitation and contribution to society, wishes of the prosecution, defense, and the victim's family, maturity level, degree of malice and forethought and degree of participation, aggravating circumstances or accompanying crimes, family environment and related circumstances such as a history of mistreatment, literacy and educational level, psychosocial and neurological development, and many others. Their reasoning was that such a sentence violated the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The decision was announced on the penultimate day of the 2011–12 Supreme Court term. For now, a sentence of life in prison without parole could still be handed down for aggravated first-degree murder if it was determined, after those relevant considerations, to be warranted.
Reform or abolition
In a number of countries, life imprisonment has been effectively abolished. Many of the countries whose governments have abolished both life imprisonment and indefinite imprisonment have been culturally influenced or colonized by Spain or Portugal, and have written such prohibitions into their current constitutional laws.
A number of European countries have abolished all forms of indefinite imprisonment, including Serbia, Croatia, and Spain, which set the maximum sentence at 40 years, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which sets the maximum sentence at 45 years, and also Portugal, which sets the maximum sentence at 25 years, while Norway has abolished life imprisonment but retains other forms of indefinite imprisonment.
In Europe, the only countries in which the law expressly provides for life sentences without the possibility of parole are the United Kingdom (England and Wales only) and the Netherlands.
In South and Central America, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Colombia, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic have all abolished life imprisonment. The maximum sentence is 75 years in El Salvador, 60 years in Colombia, 50 years in Costa Rica and Panama, 40 years in Honduras, 35 years in Ecuador, 30 years in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and 25 years in Paraguay. Brazil has a maximum sentence of 30 years under statutory law, but capital punishment and life imprisonment during wartime (for military crimes such as treason, desertion, and mutiny) are allowed in the Constitution.
In the United States, a 2009 report by the Sentencing Project suggested that life imprisonment without parole should be abolished in the country. U.S. law enforcement officials opposed its proposed abolition.