Human Rights Law Centre

New Policy Briefing on Informal Life Imprisonment by the Life Imprisonment Worldwide Project

The Life Imprisonment Worldwide project, supported by the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC), has released a new policy briefing examining the use of sentences that, whilst not formally called ‘life imprisonment’, can result in a person being detained until their death.

Life imprisonment is a severe sentence that, if it is used at all, should be imposed sparingly, implemented humanely and give people serving life sentences hope of release when they cease to pose a danger to society. Whilst attention has been given to formal life imprisonment, little is known about informal life sentences which can be as harsh, and in some cases even harsher, than formal life sentences. Failure to examine informal life sentences allows for a further class of harsh sanctions and their shortcomings to go unnoticed.

Written by HRLC Research and Projects Assistant, Zinat Jimada, the briefing examines informal life imprisonment globally, drawing on findings from research conducted by the project team: Emeritus Professor of Comparative and International Penal Law Dirk van Zyl Smit and Dr Catherine Appleton at the Centre for Research and Education in Security, Prisons and Forensic Psychiatry, St Olavs University Hospital and the Department of Mental Health, Norwegian University of Science and Technology. These research findings are placed in the context of key international criminal justice and human rights standards, including the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules) and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights.

The briefing urges policymakers and practitioners to reflect on informal life sentences and to include within them the more general constraints that should apply to the use of all forms of life imprisonment. It also provides specific recommendations on the imposition and implementation of informal life sentences. Informal life sentences, if imposed, should be used as a last resort for the most serious crimes only, as they pose a key challenge to most criminal justice systems globally.

Co-produced with Penal Reform International, with support from the International Penal and Penitentiary Foundation (IPPF), this briefing contributes to one of the project's key aims: to leverage research collaboration with organisations like the United Nations and Penal Reform International to change law, policy and practice on life imprisonment at the international level.

Download the briefing here.

Explore the Life Imprisonment Worldwide Project here.

Posted on Monday 11th March 2024

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