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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.

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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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4 Responses

  1. As a life sentenced prisoner, who is now on life-licence in the community I was a frequent reader of the Prison Reform Trust Bromley Briefings Prison Fact-file. However, it is my understanding that there are in fact more people serving life sentences in the UK than all other 27 EU states combined, rather than just merely France, Italy and Germany combined. Moreover, another concerning feature of the life sentence which sets the UK apart from the use of life sentences in other EU Member States is that they are all indeterminate in effect. This means that detention is potentially indefinite, depending on the level of risk that the lifer is assessed as posing to the public. UK life sentences are effectively divided into two: the ‘tariff’ phase, that is the punitive term that the lifer has to serve for reasons of retribution and deterrence; and the post-tariff phase, when detention is based on whether the lifer is deemed to pose a risk to the public. In practice 99% of lifers in the UK will fail to achieve release from prison either by or on tariff. This goes to the heart of fairness and proportionality regarding their use in the UK.

  2. Michael, thanks for taking the time to comment. I’ll check with PRT but I know they are very diligent in checking their facts. I’m afraid I don’t know whether other European countries adopt a similar approach to us in terms of “life licence”.
    I know many people share your views on the tariff system.
    Best Wishes
    Russell

  3. Hi Michael
    I checked with Alex Hewson of PRT and here’s his reply:

    “I’ve looked back over the stats and we can’t say categorically that the UK has more people serving life sentences in the UK than all other 27 EU states combined. The Annual Council of Europe data compiled in the SPACE 1 report unfortunately doesn’t include entries for all COE member states—this includes some EU states, such as Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Croatia, Bulgaria).

    The numbers that are available suggest that the UK does indeed have more people in prison serving a life sentence than all of those member states. But that’s not the same as saying all 27 EU states, as we just don’t have all of the numbers.

    The research which Dirk Van Zyl Smit and Catherine Appleton conducted, revealed that the UK has more life-sentenced prisoners per 100,000 of population than any other country in Europe. That’s not the same as saying more people than all EU states combined, but it is similarly shocking. The map on page 7 helps to highlight this. Whilst we might not be too concerned at the possible impact of adding in Spain and Portugal; I’m guessing that the addition of Sweden and Bulgaria could perhaps tip the balance just over, or just under the UK total (if we had the numbers).”

    Hope this helps

    All the best

    Russell

  4. Sadly, as the murder figures of the UK show, the so called Life Sentence farce is not actually deterring crimes or saving lives.
    Can I suggest that virtually all murder cases in the UK carry the terminology of a Life Sentence but mean absolutely no such thing, hence we now have multiple of Life Sentences handed down that still mean nothing like a REAL life sentence, we had a multiple rapist a while ago sentenced to thirty three Life Sentences, that eventually totalled just THIRTY years served, and that was later increased to forty years, THAT is how ridiculous the British justice system is.

    Life for murder should mean just that LIFE, the pain and suffering of the victim, the anguish and heart break of the family and loved ones does nothing to convince the courts to hand down a whole of life sentence and THEN we have in the UK the Parole Board (see Home Office figures)who have released killers who have then gone on to kill yet again!

    This is the stuff of nightmares, but still it goes on!

    The UK looks upon itself as intelligent and civilised, and then we have this.
    Derek Stocker. Bexhill on Sea. UK.

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