Criminal Justice Research Centre
  • Print

Life Imprisonment Worldwide: Principles and Practice

Funded by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust, this research project brings together a small interdisciplinary team to study life imprisonment on a global scale.

In the first study of its kind, the researchers will examine the imposition and implementation of life imprisonment around the world in order to be able to understand which crimes attract life sentences, how such sentences are implemented, and the conditions under which prisoners serve them.

The study will also critically assess the practice of life imprisonment in the light of human rights principles and standards developed by international human rights bodies and national courts. It also aims to provide clear and principled guidance to policy makers and practitioners on when and how life imprisonment, if it is used as a punishment at all, should be imposed and implemented.

The work will be led by Professor Dirk van Zyl Smit – an expert in penal law and life imprisonment at the University of Nottingham.

Professor van Zyl Smit said: "With many countries having abolished the death penalty, life imprisonment has become the ultimate punishment for the most serious crimes. In several jurisdictions, however, offenders may also be sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes that would not have attracted a capital punishment previously. At the other extreme, a few countries do not have formal legal provision for life imprisonment at all. However, indeterminate detention may be achieved in other ways."

"Norway, for example has no life sentences. In some cases, such as that of Anders Breivik who was convicted of killing 77 people in 2011, the offender has been sentenced to the maximum allowable by law, 21 years, but may subsequently be subjected to indefinite detention for as long as he continues to pose a threat to society. This may lead to sentences being indefinitely extended, essentially leading to offenders spending the rest of their lives in prison despite never receiving a life sentence.  The new study will investigate such cases of indirect life imprisonment too."

Professor Van Zyl Smit's publications include Principles of European on Prison Law and Policy. He has advised on law reform and sentencing in Europe, and in Bangladesh, Malawi and South Africa.

Alison Hannah, Executive Director of Penal Reform International (PRI) said: "PRI is delighted to hear of the award of this research grant to the University of Nottingham. Professor Dirk van Zyl Smit is a member of PRI's Board and a leading expert on life imprisonment. As more countries move towards abolition of the death penalty, there has been a significant increase in the number of offences carrying the sentence of life imprisonment, often without the possibility of parole. More life sentences are being sanctioned by courts and people serving these sentences often experience harsher treatment than other prisoners. In these circumstances, it is essential that research is carried out to establish the global situation; and that evidence from the research is used to inform penal policy. We must ensure that the death penalty is not replaced by something almost as inhumane."

Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project said: "The award is very welcome news to those of us in the U.S. in particular. As the nation that leads the world not only in its rate of imprisonment but also the use of life sentences, we stand to benefit greatly from the findings of this project. I look forward to serving as an advisor to the project and to make use of it extensively in our public education work on this issue."

The project is to culminate in two books, Life Imprisonment and Human Rights (an edited collection) and Life Imprisonment Worldwide.

The research team is made up of the Project Director, Professor Dirk Van Zyl Smit; Senior Research Fellow, Dr Catherine Appleton, author to the award-winning book, Life after Life Imprisonment (2010); Research Fellow Doctor Vicky Vouleli, and Research Associate Doctor Angelika Reichstein.

More information is available from Professor van Zyl Smit, Dr Catherine AppletonDr Vicky Vouleli, Dr Angelika Reichstein or by contacting the project directly.  

Life Imprisonment and Human Rights

Life Imprisonment and Human Rights

Newly published book edited by Dirk van Zyl Smit and Catherine Appleton.

Project updates

Death in America: Life in Europe: Two approaches to ultimate penalties

Catherine Appleton's blog post on Khoroshenko v Russia

Madhurima Dhanuka (LLM graduate of the Univeristy of Nottingham) on a recent decision on life imprisonment in India

Dirk van Zyl Smit on a US Supreme Court decision on life without parole for children

Vicky Vouleli and Dirk van Zyl Smit on Murray v United Kingdom in AJ Penal 2016, page 322

Dirk van Zyl Smit on 'Life Imprisonment in a Globalised World' in a Festschrift in honour of Lovell Derek Fernandez

Dirk van Zyl Smit on a ruling on irreducible life sentences in the Netherlands



Criminal Justice Research Centre

School of Law
Law and Social Sciences building
University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

+44 (0)115 846 6239