First global study into life behind bars

November 3rd, 2014

In the first study of its kind researchers are to examine life imprisonment on an international scale. The work will be led by The University of Nottingham’s Professor Dirk van Zyl Smit, an expert in penal law and life imprisonment.

Life Imprisonment Worldwide: Principles and Practice has been awarded a grant of £222,000 from the Leverhulme Trust.

Professor van Zyl Smit, Professor of Comparative and International Penal Law in the School of Law, said: “By understanding how life sentences are applied internationally, the researchers will be able to make recommendations and advice on when and how life sentences should be applied. This will ensure that even the worst offenders are treated justly.”

The study aims to understand which crimes attract life sentences, how they are implemented, and the conditions under which prisoners serve them. It will also look at the human rights of those serving life sentences, including whether it is acceptable to impose irreducible life sentences with no hope of release.

Professor van Zyl Smit said: “With many countries having abolished the death penalty, life imprisonment has become the ultimate punishment for the most serious crimes. In several jurisdictions, however, offenders may also be sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes that would not have attracted a capital punishment previously. At the other extreme, a few countries do not have formal legal provision for life imprisonment at all. However, indeterminate detention may be achieved in other ways.

“Norway, for example, has no life sentences. In some cases, such as that of Anders Breivik who was convicted of killing 77 people in 2011, the offender has been sentenced to the maximum allowable by law, 21 years, but may subsequently be subjected to indefinite detention for as long as he continues to pose a threat to society. This may lead to sentences being indefinitely extended, essentially leading to offenders spending the rest of their lives in prison despite never receiving a life sentence. The new study will investigate such cases of indirect life imprisonment too.”

Alison Hannah, Executive Director of Penal Reform International (PRI), said: “PRI is delighted to hear of the award of this research grant to The University of Nottingham.

“Professor Dirk van Zyl Smit is a member of PRI’s board and a leading expert on life imprisonment. As more countries move towards abolition of the death penalty, there has been a significant increase in the number of offences carrying 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. It is essential that research establishes 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.”

The project is to culminate in a book, scheduled to be completed in July 2016.

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