Society and communities

Life work

Since the turn of the century, the number of prisoners serving life sentences around the world has increased from roughly 261,000 to 479,000 in 2014, an increase of 84 per cent in 14 years. In addition to the growing abolition of the death penalty, a move towards policies that are ‘tough on crime’ and a backlash against milder life sentences are thought to be linked to growing prison populations of life prisoners around the world.

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 is also growing. In England and Wales, for example, the average time spent behind bars by life prisoners 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.” In 2020, Life Imprisonment won the annual distinguished book awards of both the European Society of Criminology and of the Division of International Criminology of the American Society of Criminology. A Spanish translation of the book is in press with Tirant lo Blanch.   

In their research, 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 life prisoners 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 lifer prisoners. This shifting landscape of life imprisonment is complex, Professor van Zyl Smit says, and has fundamental implications for human rights.

He and Dr Appleton found 65 countries impose life sentences without parole, which raises questions over rehabilitation and inhumane punishment. As one life prisoner stated: “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. He was invited in 2019 by Ukraine to help it comply with a European Court of Human Rights ruling on its system of releasing life prisoners. In 2021, the Supreme Court of Ukraine applied their work to strike down legislation which prevented Ukrainian life prisoners from being considered for release.

“We’re trying to achieve impact of this kind in countries around the world,” Professor van Zyl Smit said. In 2021, he and Dr Appleton presented their work in Japan – itself reviewing its policies on life imprisonment – speaking at the UN Congress on Criminal Justice. They are now working together with scholars from the National University of Vietnam and the University Melbourne on the first book on Life Imprisonment in Asia.

Dr Appleton is now also based at the Department of Mental Health at NTNU in Trondheim, Norway. Her research project there is investigating the implementation and impact of Norway’s ultimate penalty – indefinite preventive detention. Norway is a country that abolished life imprisonment in 1981 but has since set up a system of preventive detention, a type of informal life sentence. 

Dr Appleton stated: “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. What about countries that do not impose formal life sentences? How do their systems work? What type of prison regimes do they impose? What is it like to serve indefinite preventive detention?”

Professor van Zyl Smit and Dr Appleton are continuing to work on their Nottingham-based project on life imprisonment worldwide. Professor van Zyl Smit concludes: “I’m hoping that our continued work will serve as a serious antidote to the rise of popular this book serves as a serious antidote to that sort of popular punitiveness in this area. Our book is 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 Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Mental Health, NTNU in Trondheim, Norway, and Research Associate in Law at the University of Nottingham, UK.

Dirk van Zyl Smit

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

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