When a court passes a life sentence it means that the offender will be subject to that sentence for the rest of their life. When passing a life sentence, a judge must specify the minimum term (sometimes called the tariff) an offender must spend in prison before becoming eligible to apply for parole. The only exception to this is when a life sentence is passed with a ‘whole life order’ meaning that such an offender will spend the rest of their life in prison. A life sentence always lasts for life whatever the length of the minimum term.
Mandatory life sentences
Parliament has decided that judges must give a life sentence to all offenders found guilty of murder. The judge will set a minimum term an offender must serve before they can be considered for release by the Parole Board.
The minimum term for murder is based on the starting points set out in Schedule 21 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (as amended). This schedule sets out examples of the different types of cases and the starting point which would usually be applied, for example, where the murder is committed with a knife or other weapon, the starting point is 25 years.
The offender will only be released once they have served the minimum term and if the Parole Board is satisfied that detaining the offender is no longer necessary for the protection of the public. If released, an offender serving a life sentence will remain on licence for the rest of their life. They may be recalled to prison at any time if they are considered to be a risk to the public. They do not need to have committed another offence in order to be recalled.
Whole life order
For the most serious cases, an offender may be sentenced to a life sentence with a ‘whole life order.’ This means that their crime was so serious that they will never be released from prison.
On 30 June 2017 there were 63 offenders serving a whole life sentence. These include serial killers Peter Sutcliffe, Dennis Nilsen and Rosemary West.
These statistics are taken from the Ministry of Justice’s offender management statistics publications.
Discretionary life sentences
There are a number of crimes for which the maximum sentence for the offence, such as rape or robbery, is life imprisonment. This does not mean that all or most offenders convicted of those offences will get life.
Parliament has made provisions that deal with how offenders who are considered dangerous or who are convicted of a second very serious offence may be sentenced to imprisonment for life. The key provisions are set out here:
1. Life sentence for serious offences
A sentence of imprisonment for life must be imposed, where the following criteria are met (Section 225 Criminal Justice Act 2003):
- the offender is convicted of a specified offence (listed in Schedule 15 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003); and
- in the court’s opinion the offender poses a significant risk to the public of serious harm by the commission of further specified offences; and
- the maximum penalty for the offence is life imprisonment; and
- the court considers that the seriousness of the offence justifies the imposition of imprisonment for life.
2. Life sentence for second listed offence
The court must impose a sentence of imprisonment for life, where:
- the offender is convicted of an offence listed in schedule 15B of the Criminal Justice Act 2003; and
- the court would impose a sentence of imprisonment of 10 years or more for the offence; and
- the offender has a previous conviction for a listed offence for which he received a life sentence with a minimum term of at least 5 years or a sentence of imprisonment of at least 10 years;
unless it would be unjust to do so in all the circumstances.
The judge in sentencing will set a minimum term that the offender must serve in prison. At the end of that term they can apply to the Parole Board for release on licence but will only be released if no longer considered to be a risk to the public. If released the offender would be subject to certain conditions and if the conditions are broken or if the offender is considered to be a risk to the public they will be sent back to prison.
For further information, please refer to section 224A and Schedule 15B of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (as amended).