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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

UK has most people serving life sentences in Europe

Latest Prison Reform Trust briefing finds more people in the UK serving a life sentence than France, Germany and Italy combined.

Bromley Briefings

The UK has the highest number of life-sentenced prisoners of any country in Europe, the latest edition of the Prison Reform Trust’s Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile reveals.

There are 8,554 people in prison in the UK serving a life sentence—more than France, Germany and Italy combined. In 2016, the UK and Turkey between them comprised 66% of the total life-sentenced prison population in Europe.

Life-sentenced prisoners in the UK make up more than 10% of the total sentenced prison population, which is higher than that for any other European country—and higher than that for the United States at 9.5%.

The growth in life and other forms of indeterminate sentences in the UK has been a significant driver of the increase in the prison population and raises serious questions regarding the fairness and proportionality of their use, the Briefing says.

As regular readers will know, the Prison Reform Trust’s Bromley Briefings are the most reliable and accessible way to get the latest facts and figures on prisons in the UK. The new edition includes specially commissioned research by Professor Dirk van Zyl Smit and Dr Catherine Appleton at the University of Nottingham.Their analysis highlights exclusive material from their forthcoming book, Life Imprisonment: A Global Human Rights Analysis, to be published in January 2019 by Harvard University Press.

It shows that the UK tops the list of countries in Europe for the proportion of its citizens serving life sentences, at 13 per 100,000 head of population. In France the rate is just 0.7 per 100,000 while in Russia the rate is 1.2.

In Germany the proportion is slightly higher at 2.3 per 100,000 but still lags far behind the UK rate.

Only Turkey comes close to the UK in Europe for the proportion of its citizens serving life sentences, at 9.3 per 100,000.

Professor Dirk van Zyl Smit and Dr Catherine Appleton highlight a number of factors that have combined to produce the very high number of people serving life sentences, and other forms of indeterminate sentences, in UK prisons:

  • Following the abolition of the death penalty in 1965 (1973 in Northern Ireland) life imprisonment became a mandatory sentence for murder in the UK. This is not the case in most European countries.
  • Murder is very widely defined in the UK, particularly in England and Wales and in Northern Ireland. A person can be convicted of murder despite having no intention to kill, and even by failing to intervene to prevent someone else from killing.
  • Discretionary life imprisonment in various jurisdictions of the UK is imposed for a wider range of offences than in any other European country.
  • UK jurisdictions have created other forms of indeterminate sentences, including in England and Wales the indeterminate sentence for public protection (IPP). Although this sentence was abolished in 2012, there are still 2,598 people currently in prison serving an IPP, 89% of whom have passed their original tariff expiry date.
  • The minimum terms that life-sentenced prisoners have to serve in the UK before their release is considered are long and are getting longer still. The average minimum term imposed for murder has risen from 12.5 years in 2003 to 21.3 years in 2016. This dramatic increase in punitiveness has been driven by legislation passed in 2003 that introduced mandatory minimum punishment tariffs for a very wide range of behaviour attracting a life sentence.

Writing in the Bromley Briefings, Professor Dirk van Zyl Smit and Dr Catherine Appleton, said:

“The UK’s use of indeterminate sentences is plainly out of kilter with the majority of international comparators. But it is also at odds with its own historical approach to sentencing for the most serious crimes. The watershed was the legislation passed by Parliament in 2003, which inflated the punishment tariffs for formal life sentences and created the IPP. That dissonance poses serious and urgent questions for government, parliament and prison service alike.”

Commenting, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“A substantial minority of the prison population is serving sentences characterised by an absence of hope and in many cases a sense that punishment, though deserved, has ceased to be proportionate or just in its administration. This has profound implications for the way of life prisons provide, if the treatment of those serving the longest sentences is to be both humane and purposeful.”

Life sentences

This analysis shows that the UK tops the list of countries in Europe for the proportion of its citizens serving life sentences, at 13 per 100,000 head of population. In France the rate is just 0.7 per 100,000 while in Russia the rate is 1.2.

In Germany the proportion is slightly higher at 2.3 per 100,000 but still lags far behind the UK rate.

Only Turkey comes close to the UK in Europe for the proportion of its citizens serving life sentences, at 9.3 per 100,000.

Professor Dirk van Zyl Smit and Dr Catherine Appleton highlight a number of factors that have combined to produce the very high number of people serving life sentences, and other forms of indeterminate sentences, in UK prisons:

  • Following the abolition of the death penalty in 1965 (1973 in Northern Ireland) life imprisonment became a mandatory sentence for murder in the UK. This is not the case in most European countries.
  • Murder is very widely defined in the UK, particularly in England and Wales and in Northern Ireland. A person can be convicted of murder despite having no intention to kill, and even by failing to intervene to prevent someone else from killing.
  • Discretionary life imprisonment in various jurisdictions of the UK is imposed for a wider range of offences than in any other European country.
  • UK jurisdictions have created other forms of indeterminate sentences, including in England and Wales the indeterminate sentence for public protection (IPP). Although this sentence was abolished in 2012, there are still 2,598 people currently in prison serving an IPP, 89% of whom have passed their original tariff expiry date.
  • The minimum terms that life-sentenced prisoners have to serve in the UK before their release is considered are long and are getting longer still. The average minimum term imposed for murder has risen from 12.5 years in 2003 to 21.3 years in 2016. This dramatic increase in punitiveness has been driven by legislation passed in 2003 that introduced mandatory minimum punishment tariffs for a very wide range of behaviour attracting a life sentence.

When life means death

A particularly draconian feature of life imprisonment in England and Wales, and in Northern Ireland, is that it can be combined with a whole life order, the severest life sentence that a court can pass. When a whole life order is made no minimum period is set and the expectation is that the person will end their life in prison. This means that there is no routine review or consideration of release. Such sentences are imposed very often in the United States where they are known as ‘life without parole’ or LWOP. In England and Wales the number of whole life prisoners has risen significantly from none in 1982, to 22 in 2005 and 63 in 2018 (see the chart below). Whole life orders cannot be imposed in Scotland.

Conclusion

Professor Dirk van Zyl Smit and Dr Catherine Appleton summarise their analysis in these words:

“The UK’s use of indeterminate sentences is plainly out of kilter with the majority of international comparators. But it is also at odds with its own historical approach to sentencing for the most serious crimes. The watershed was the legislation passed by Parliament in 2003, which inflated the punishment tariffs for formal life sentences and created the IPP. That dissonance poses serious and urgent questions for government, parliament and prison service alike.”

Commenting, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“A substantial minority of the prison population is serving sentences characterised by an absence of hope and in many cases a sense that punishment, though deserved, has ceased to be proportionate or just in its administration. This has profound implications for the way of life prisons provide, if the treatment of those serving the longest sentences is to be both humane and purposeful.”

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