Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

Life Sentences And ‘Draconian Power’ In The United Kingdom

“I sometimes wonder whether, in 100 years’ time, people will be as shocked by the length of sentences we are imposing as we are by some of the punishments of the 18th century,” the lord chief justice of England and Wales said in 2006.

H.M. Prison Manchester, in Manchester, EnglandChristopher Furlong / Getty Images

Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

Media reports on a trial in Britain that concluded Monday have noted that the judge said she had considered imposing a sentence of life without parole on Reynhard Sinaga, who was convicted of over 150 sexual offenses. Ultimately, the judge said, she concluded the case was “borderline.” Sinaga will now serve multiple concurrent life sentences with a minimum term of 30 years, ensuring his incarceration until he is at least in his 60s.

Had Sinaga been sentenced to die in prison, it would have been the first time a British court imposed such a penalty for a non-murder conviction. This fact alone sets Britain’s life without parole sentences, and life sentences more generally, apart from those in the U.S. Nearly a quarter of people serving life without parole in U.S. prisons were not convicted of homicide. But the numbers of life sentences in the United States and U.K. are also far, far apart. There were 68 people serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole in England and Wales in 2018. Compare this to 53,290 in the U.S. in 2016.

When it comes to lengthy prison sentences, the United States outstrips every other country in the world, many times over, in its use of life sentences. In 2014, the number of people in prison serving life sentences worldwide was estimated to be 536,000. The Sentencing Project noted that the United States, with over 160,000 formal life sentences and over 40,000 “virtual life sentences” (sentences with minimum terms of 50 or more years) accounts for a full 30 percent of that number. Advocates for racial justice and ending mass incarceration learn early that while the U.S. makes up only 5 percent of the world’s population it holds a quarter of the world’s incarcerated people. With life sentences, the numbers are even worse.

The U.K. is no model, though. Its incarceration rate is many times lower than the U.S. and its per capita rate of life sentences is also far lower (10.3 compared to over 50 per 100,000 population in the United States), but the use of life sentences has increased over the past decade. Among people in prison, life sentences account for a higher proportion of sentences than in the United States.

Moreover, the U.K., while less harsh than the U.S., is an extreme outlier among its European neighbors. In a 2018 report, Dirk van Zyl Smit and Catherine Appleton of the University of Nottingham, provide historical and geographical context for Britain’s use of life sentences. The sentences do not exist in Portugal, for example. In France, according to 2016 figures, there were 489 people in prison sentenced to life. In Germany, there were 1,863. In the U.K., the number was more than four times that at 8,554. The U.K. and Turkey together account for two-thirds of all life sentences in Europe.

Much of the increase in the number of life sentences can be attributed to legislation passed in 2003. The minimum terms that people sentenced to life are required to serve has been steadily going up, more than doubling since the passage of that law.

As in the U.S., the use of lengthy sentences in the U.K. has given rise to the phenomenon of a rapidly aging population of people in prison. People aged 60 and over are reported to be the fastest-growing group of people in prison, with three times more people in that age group in prison than there were 16 years ago.

Whole-life or full-life sentences, which the judge described considering in the Sinaga case, are rare by U.S. standards. But they are almost nonexistent elsewhere in Europe, and human rights advocates in the U.K. have fought fiercely against the practice. In 2006, the then-lord chief justice, reported The Guardian, argued that politicians and judges had been pushed into handing down longer sentences. “Some murderers are being sentenced to a minimum of 30 years, or even full-life terms,” he said. “But I sometimes wonder whether, in 100 years’ time, people will be as shocked by the length of sentences we are imposing as we are by some of the punishments of the 18th century.”

Van Zyl Smit and Appleton described life sentences in the U.K. and worldwide this way: “Indeterminate sentences, whether they are called life imprisonment or something else, have one particular feature that sets them aside from all other types of imprisonment. Persons on whom such sentences are imposed have no guarantee of ever being released. Their fate is fully in the hands of the state.” This already “draconian” power, they wrote, is especially so when it results in the imposition of whole life or life without parole sentences. “LWOP has been described as ‘death by incarceration,’ and represents state power at its most extreme,” they wrote.

The European Court of Human Rights considered a case that challenged whole-life sentences. Three men serving life without the possibility of parole argued that the sentence amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment as they had no hope of release. But the court rejected the argument in 2017, saying the European convention on human rights did not ban the imposition of a life sentence on a person convicted of murder as long as there was a prospect of release and a possibility of review. But as Van Zyl Smit and Appleton point out, “neither the secretary of state nor the judges who are making whole life orders are even paying lip service to the release requirements set in European human rights law. Not surprisingly, no prisoner subject to a whole life order in the UK has ever been released.”