Life sentence: true to its word?

When somebody says ‘life sentence’ you automatically think of films; the type where someone is locked up and they throw away the key. Most people assume that this is what a life sentence is, and it can lead to confusion, and often anger, particularly aimed at the media, when someone given a ‘life sentence’ is released. We have seen this only too well with the recent case of John Worboys, and more recently Stephen Mitchell. People have taken to social media to express their anger and frustration at criminals such as these being released so soon into their ‘life sentence’. Although it is not my place and I do not aim to comment on individual cases in this article, I do aim to provide some clarification on the prospect of a ‘life sentence’, what it is, and what it means for convicted criminals and the wider society.

The problem with a life sentence is the misunderstanding that it creates. It is assumed, as previously mentioned, that a life sentence effectively means ‘locked up and throw away the key’. This is not the case, and more representative of a ‘whole life term’ sentence, defined by the website as “No minimum term set by the judge, and the person is never considered for release”. Whole life term sentences are rarely given, but would be given in circumstances of multiple murder, or murder of a child involving abduction or sexual conduct, to name just a few examples.

Now that a ‘whole life term’ sentence has been defined, it is clear that a ‘life sentence’ then must be different. The definition of a life sentence is that it “lasts for the rest of a person’s life- if they are released from prison and commit another crime they can be sent back to prison at any time” (as defined by This definition may initially seem contradictory, so I endeavour to explain. For a person who has committed murder, a court must give a life sentence. For other serious offences such as rape and armed robbery, a court may choose to give a life sentence. The minimum term that a convicted person may spend in prison once given a life sentence is set out in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, and the judge sets the minimum term at sentencing as it varies on the facts of each specific case.

Once someone has been imprisoned for the minimum term of their life sentence, their case may be subject to review by the parole board. The parole board is an independent body that carries out risk assessments on prisoners to determine whether they can be safely released into the community. Firstly, the parole board conducts a member case assessment (MCA) once a case has been referred to them. This requires making an assessment based on a collection of reports and evidence about the prisoner from throughout their time in the prison. This could result in a negative decision where the prisoner is not let out of prison; recommendation for transfer to open conditions; release of the prisoner (for certain types of sentence); or an oral hearing to hear evidence from the prisoner in person. If a prisoner is given a negative decision at the MCA stage, they can ask for a further oral hearing to discuss this decision. At an oral hearing, evidence is heard from the prisoner themselves, and professionals that have worked with them during their time in prison.  An oral hearing panel is made up of three parole board members, who will read all written evidence looked at in the MCA before the hearing so that they have a full picture of the case before they begin. A written decision is issued within two weeks of the oral hearing, and if the prisoner is released, licence conditions will be set.

Once this rigorous process has been undertaken and it is agreed that a prisoner is released, they will be released on licence. This licence is the part of the sentence that remains for life. If someone given a life sentence breaches their licence conditions, they will be recalled to prison immediately.


To conclude, a life sentence is not what most assume it is. It is very easy for a lay person to confuse a life sentence and a whole life term sentence. Although both have a life lasting element to them, they are very different. A life sentence does not necessarily mean a life of imprisonment, but it does mean constant monitoring and the chance of being brought back to prison immediately should licence conditions be breached. A very thorough check is undertaken before releasing a prisoner who has been given a life sentence, and it should be noted that release is not a decision made lightly given the severity of the crime originally committed.

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