Analysis Opinion

Life imprisonment: a sentence in dire need of reform

Does ending death penalty mean more life sentencing?

Olivia Rope, Executive Director of Penal Reform International (PRI), discusses life sentences, a key priority area for PRI.

ICPR and Prison Insider asked several experts worldwide to share their insights in the framework of the project Understanding and reducing the use of imprisonment in 10 countries. Read Olivia Rope’s insights.


AT THE BEGINNING of this century there were an estimated 261,000 people serving a formal life imprisonment sentence (formal life imprisonment is used to describe cases where the court explicitly imposes a sentence of imprisonment for life). By 2014 this number had grown to just under half a million people (479,000) – a rise of about 84%.

The number of people serving informal life sentences (when the sentence imposed may not be called ‘life imprisonment’ but may result in the person spending life in prison) remains unknown.

While there are significant disparities in the use of life imprisonment between countries, formal life imprisonment is on the law books of 183 countries and territories; and 65 countries use sentences of life without parole. At least 64 countries have provision for informal or de facto life sentences and at least 50 countries have provision for post‑conviction indefinite preventive detention, but there are almost certainly more.

India, where over half of the prison population are serving life

The steady increase in use of life sentences has led to a rapidly ageing prison population, which presents many problems for prison administrations around health and safeguarding.

The abolition of life without parole and restricting use of life sentence to only the ‘most serious offences’ are important starting points.

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Olivia Rope

Penal Reform International (PRI)

In this piece, Olivia Rope, Executive Director of Penal Reform International (PRI), discusses life sentences, a key priority area for PRI. The organisation, founded in 1989, works globally to promote criminal justice systems that uphold human rights for all and do no harm. They work to make criminal justice systems non-discriminatory and protect the rights of disadvantaged people. They run practical human rights programmes and support reforms that make criminal justice fair and effective. It publishes annually its Global Prison Trends.
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About the project

Understanding and reducing the use of imprisonment in ten countries

This comparative research and policy project is led by the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research (ICPR), based at Birkbeck, University of London. To understand the causes and consequences of over-incarceration worldwide, ICPR has worked with a large network of NGOs, academic researchers and practitioners spanning this diverse selection of countries. ICPR partnered with Prison Insider in the latter stages of the project to shed light on aspects of prisoners’ lived experience in custody before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. The project team collaborated to gather national experts’ insights, and to facilitate a continuing global conversation around the key research findings.
The project focuses on five main themes that can be found in the drop-down menu.  

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