Criminal Justice Research Centre
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Life Imprisonment Worldwide: Principles and Practice

Initially funded by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust, this research project brought together an interdisciplinary team, led by Professor Dirk van Zyl Smit and Dr Catherine Appleton, to examine for the first time life imprisonment on a global scale. On the basis of the research findings, it continues to challenge practice and to advocate reform of life imprisonment worldwide.

Over the past four years, the researchers have studied the imposition and implementation of life imprisonment around the world in order to be able to understand the different types of life sentences, how many persons are sentenced to life imprisonment, which crimes attract life sentences, how such sentences are implemented, and the conditions under which prisoners serve them.

They have assessed critically the practice of life imprisonment in the light of human rights principles and standards developed by international human rights bodies and national courts. One of the main aims has been 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 substantive research conducted by the Life Imprisonment Worldwide Project has been complemented by a campaign to increase its impact. With support from an ESRC Impact Accelerator Award, key findings of the research were published in April 2018 in a joint policy briefing on Life Imprisonment with Penal Reform International.

The policy briefing examines the use of life imprisonment against the background of Goal 16 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the Nelson Mandela Rules on the Standard Minimum Treatment of Prisoners and other international standards. The briefing concludes that urgent changes are required to the way life imprisonment is imposed and implemented to make it human rights compliant. These include the abolition of life without parole sentences and the recommendation that life sentences should never be mandatory.

Leading penal reformers have commented on the Life Imprisonment Worldwide project:

  • Alison Hannah, Executive Director of Penal Reform International said: "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 current research team is made up of the Project Director, Professor Dirk Van Zyl Smit and Senior Research Fellow Dr Catherine Appleton, author of the award-winning book, Life after Life Imprisonment (2010).

During the course of the project, Dr Georgie Benford, Meritxell Abellán Almenara, Dr Vicky Vouleli, Dr Angelika Reichstein and Dr Joe Sempik were also part of the research team. Expert guidance was provided by Emeritus Professor Roger Hood of the University of Oxford, Professor Tapio Lappi-Seppälä of the University of Helsinki, Marc Mauer, Executive Director of the Sentencing Project and Alison Hannah, Executive Director of Penal Reform International.


The project has resulted in two major books on life imprisonment: 

Life Imprisonment: A Global Human Rights Analysis, to be published by Harvard University Press in late 2018.

Life Imprisonment: A Global Human Rights Analysis

Life Imprisonment and Human Rights (an edited collection) published by Hart Publishing in 2016.

Life Imprisonment and Human Rights

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Criminal Justice Research Centre

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University of Nottingham
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