When someone is given a life sentence, they will be subject to that sentence for the rest of their life.
When a judge passes a life sentence, they must specify the minimum term an offender must spend in prison before becoming eligible to apply for parole (sometimes called the tariff).
The offender will be released only 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. If they are ever thought to be a risk to the public they could be recalled to prison. They do not need to have committed another offence in order to be recalled.
There is one exception, which is when a judge passes a ‘whole life order’. This sentence means that the offender must 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 Sentencing Code. The schedule sets out examples of the different types of cases and the starting point that would usually be applied. For example, where a murder is committed with a knife or other weapon which the offender took to the scene intending to commit an offence, the starting point for the minimum term would be 25 years.
Whole life order
For the most serious cases of murder, 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.
As of 30 June 2023, there were 65 whole-life prisoners. The list of offenders with a whole-life term includes murderers Rosemary West, Levi Bellfield, Michael Adebolajo, Wayne Couzens and Lucy Letby. (Statistics taken from the Ministry of Justice’s offender management statistics publications.)
Discretionary life sentences
There are a number of crimes – such as rape or robbery – for which the maximum sentence is life imprisonment. This does not mean that all or most offenders convicted of these 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. This is a summary of the main provisions:
1. Life sentence for serious offences
- the offender is convicted of an offence listed in Schedule 19 of the Sentencing Code; and
- the offence was committed on or after 4 April 2005; 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 court considers that the seriousness of the offence justifies the imposition of imprisonment for life.
2. Life sentence for second listed offence
- the offender is convicted of an offence listed in Schedule 15 of the Sentencing Code; 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.
In both situations the judge will set a minimum term that the offender must serve in prison. At the end of that term the offender can apply to the Parole Board for release on licence but will be released only if they are 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 the offender is considered to be a risk to the public, they will be sent back to prison.
How are sentencing guidelines used?
In cases of murder, the courts use Schedule 21 to the Sentencing Code to set the minimum term (see above). For non-murder cases where the court has determined that the offender should receive a life sentence they will use any relevant sentencing guidelines to set a ‘notional determinate sentence’. This is the sentence that the offender would have received, according to the relevant guidelines, had the court been imposing a standard determinate sentence.
The court will deduct any credit for a guilty plea, and then consider what the automatic release point would have been for that offender had they received a standard determinate sentence. This may be a half or two-thirds of the notional sentence, depending on the offence involved and the length of the sentence. This notional release point, minus any time already spent in custody on remand, sets the minimum term that the offender will spend in prison before they can be considered for release.
Example: an offender is sentenced for unlawful act manslaughter. The court determines a life sentence is required. Had they been imposing a standard determinate sentence according to the relevant guidelines, the court would have imposed a sentence of 20 years’ custody. A reduction of 10 per cent is applied for a late guilty plea resulting in 18 years’ custody. Someone receiving a standard determinate sentence of 18 years for manslaughter would be automatically released on licence having served two-thirds of their sentence, so the minimum term of the life sentence is set at 12 years, minus the time the offender has been on remand.