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Life work

A landmark global study is informing policy and debate on life imprisonment

Since the turn of the century, the number of prisoners serving life sentences around the world has doubled. The latest global estimates, from 2014, show that there are 479,000 ‘lifers’. A move towards policies that are ‘tough on crime’ and a backlash against milder life sentences is thought to be linked to growing prison populations of lifers around the world.

For the first time life imprisonment has overtaken the death penalty as the punishment for the most serious crimes.

While a rise in life sentencing has followed a decline in use of the death penalty, prisoners are also being locked up for life for offences that once did not carry the ultimate available sanction. The time prisoners spend serving life sentences may also be growing: in England and Wales, for example, the average time spent behind bars has more than doubled since 1979.

Professor Dirk van Zyl Smit and Dr Catherine Appleton from the School of Law hope these insights – from their landmark study of life imprisonment around the world – will inform debate as governments, activists and scholars grapple with how societies deal with prisoners convicted of the most serious offences.

Professor van Zyl Smit and Dr Appleton’s Life Imprisonment: A Global Human Rights Analysis (Harvard University Press, 2019), is described by Human Rights Quarterly as a “superhuman piece of scholarship” and by Professor James B Jacobs of New York University School of Law as a “tour de force” and “the definitive source of information on and critique of the most serious punishment practically all countries regularly impose.”

Professor van Zyl Smit and Dr Appleton found 183 countries and territories impose life sentences. At least 4,820 criminal offences around the world carry life imprisonment as a sentence; 33 countries impose neither the death penalty nor life imprisonment. The UK and Turkey together have more lifers than the rest of Europe, including Russia.

Professor van Zyl Smit admits the book was “extraordinarily ambitious” as it examines the penal codes of 216 jurisdictions. It gives new insights into the types of crime that land life sentences, how such sentences are implemented, and prison conditions for lifers. This shifting landscape of life imprisonment is complex, Professor van Zyl Smit says, and has fundamental implications for human rights.

We’re trying to achieve impact of this kind in countries around the world
Professor Dirk van Zyl Smit

He and Dr Appleton found 65 countries impose life sentences without parole, which raises questions over rehabilitation and inhumane punishment. As a lifer told one study: “Life in prison is a slow, tortuous death.” Their research is guiding policymakers on when and how life imprisonment, if used at all, should be imposed and implemented.

In Namibia, the Supreme Court cited van Zyl Smit and Appleton in ruling that 100-year sentences could not be imposed as ‘back-door’ alternatives to whole life sentences.

“We’re trying to achieve impact of this kind in countries around the world,” Professor van Zyl Smit said. He was invited this year by Ukraine to help it comply with a European Court of Human Rights ruling on its system of releasing lifers. In 2020, he and Dr Appleton will travel to Japan – itself reviewing its policies on life imprisonment – to speak at the UN Congress on Criminal Justice.

Closer to home, Dr Appleton’s new research project as a Nottingham Research Fellow is looking at the experiences of whole-lifers in England and Wales. Life imprisonment is a major punishment in the UK, which has 8,661 lifers; France has just 466. Both have comparable homicide rates but the UK has mandatory life sentences for murder, and a wider definition of the crime.

Dr Appleton added: “There has been a huge research focus on human rights and the death penalty, yet little on the impact of life imprisonment or asking what should societies without the death penalty do with people who commit the most serious crimes. If more whole life sentences are imposed, is this just? All prisoners should have some hope of release.”

Professor van Zyl Smit is meanwhile focusing on what he perceives as a backlash against milder life sentences. “I’m hoping this book serves as a serious antidote to that sort of popular punitiveness. It’s not a polemic but it does make very clear arguments about a more humane way of dealing with the worst offenders.”

Catherine Appleton

Dr Catherine Appleton is a Nottingham Research Fellow in the School of Law.

Dirk van Zyl Smit

Dirk van Zyl Smit is Professor of Comparative and International Penal Law in the School of Law.

Vision magazine front cover - Issue 4, Autumn 2019

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