Life sentenced prisoners
What is an indeterminate sentence?
Unlike a prisoner with a determinate sentence who must be released at the end of that sentence, those sentenced to life imprisonment or an indeterminate sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) have no automatic right to be released. Instead, such prisoners must serve a minimum period of imprisonment to meet the needs of retribution and deterrence. This punitive period is announced by the trial judge in open court and is known commonly as the "tariff" period.
No indeterminate sentence prisoner can expect to be released before they have served the tariff period in full. However, release on expiry of the tariff period is not automatic. Release will only take place once this period has been served and the Parole Board is satisfied that the risk of harm the prisoner poses to the public is acceptable. This means that indeterminate sentence prisoners could remain in prison for many more years on preventative grounds after they have served the punitive period of imprisonment set by the trial judge. A release direction can only be made if the Parole Board is satisfied that the risk of harm the offender poses to the public is acceptable.
The release of indeterminate sentence prisoners is entirely a matter for the Parole Board.
The Courts must impose a life sentence on any individual convicted of murder. This is the only sentence available for such a conviction.
The maximum sentence that can be awarded by the Courts for a number of other types of offences, for example rape, manslaughter and arson is life imprisonment. It is for the Court to decide whether the circumstances of the offence and the risk presented by the individual warrant the maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Types of life sentence
The main types of life sentence and the respective age related variants are as follows:
Mandatory life sentences
- Imprisonment for Life - this is the only sentence that can be imposed on anyone over the age of 21 who is convicted of murder.
- Detention during Her Majesty's Pleasure - this is the mandatory sentence for a person convicted of murder who was aged 10 or over but under 18 at the time of the offence.
- Custody for Life - this is the mandatory sentence for a person aged 18 or over but under 21 at the time of the offence who is convicted of murder and sentenced while under 21.
Discretionary life sentences
- Imprisonment for Life - this is the maximum sentence for those over 21 convicted of a serious offence, e.g. manslaughter, attempted murder, rape, armed robbery, arson etc.
- Detention for Life - this is the maximum sentence for a person aged 10 or over but under 18, who is convicted of offences other than murder for which a discretionary life sentence may be passed on a person over 21.
- Custody for Life - this sentence may also be imposed where a person aged 18 or over but under 21 at the time of the offence is convicted of any other offence for which a discretionary life sentence may be passed on an adult.
Automatic life sentence
In the absence of exceptional circumstances, the courts passed this sentence on anyone who was 18 or over on or after 01 October 1997 who was convicted of a second serious violent or sexual offence. The automatic life sentence was replaced by the indeterminate sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection for offences committed on or after 04 April 2005. However, there will continue to be automatic life sentence prisoners in the system for some years to come. Transitional arrangements enable those automatic life sentences imposed before 04 April 2005, and the related life licence provisions to remain in force.
Imprisonment (or detention) for public protection
An indeterminate sentence of Imprisonment (or Detention) for Public Protection can be imposed in the following circumstances:
Imprisonment for public protection (IPP)
Under Section 225 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the courts will impose an indeterminate sentence of IPP when the offender:
- is aged 18 or over;
- is convicted of a serious specified violent or sexual offence committed on or after 04 April 2005, for which the maximum penalty is 10 years or more; and who
- in the court's opinion, poses a significant risk of harm to the public
The sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection replaced the automatic life sentence for offences that were committed on or after 04 April 2005.
On 14 July 2008 changes to the above, introduced by Section 47 and Schedule 8 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, come into force. The effect of these changes is that IPP sentences may only be imposed where the offender would be required to serve at least 2 years in custody or (in the cases of offenders under the age of 18) where the offender has a previous conviction for one of a specified list of very serious offences. The Act also removes the presumption of risk (requirement for judges to conclude that the offender is dangerous) where there is a previous conviction for violent or sexual crime. It also allows courts greater discretion so that where all the conditions for an IPP sentence are met the court may impose a sentence of IPP, extended sentence or other sentence as it finds most appropriate in the case.
Detention for public protection (DPP)
Under Section 226 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 a sentence of DPP will be imposed in the circumstances above when the offender is under 18 years of age.
The Parole Board has the power to direct the release of life sentence prisoners but release can only take place once the minimum period of imprisonment has been served, unless in exceptional compassionate circumstances, and the Parole Board is satisfied that the risk of harm the prisoner poses to the public is acceptable.
All indeterminate sentence prisoners are released on a licence and are supervised by the Probation Service. The release licence contains a number of standard conditions that the released prisoner must adhere to. On the recommendation of the Parole Board the licence may also contain additional conditions that are specific to the individual prisoner such as the requirement to undertake further offending behaviour work in the community or conditions to exclude the individual from certain places in order to protect the victim or victim's family.
- are subject to a life licence which remains in force for the duration of their natural life;
- may be recalled to prison at any time to continue serving their life sentence if it is considered necessary to protect the public
- are subject to an IPP licence ;
- can apply to the Parole Board to have their licence cancelled after 10 years (and if unsuccessful at yearly intervals thereafter);
- may be recalled to prison while the licence remains in force to continue serving their sentence if it is considered necessary to protect the public
Whole life orders
Where the trial judge has decided that the requirements of retribution and deterrence can be satisfied only by prisoners remaining in prison for the rest of their lives, the trial judge will not set a minimum term of imprisonment and these prisoners are not eligible for a Parole Board review or release. Although a whole life order applies only in mandatory lifer cases, it is open to a trial judge in non-murder cases to decline to set a minimum period of imprisonment which has the same effect. In either case the prisoner can appeal.
Statistics on indeterminate sentence prisoners are published quarterly in a Ministry of Justice statistical bulletin.
You can find further information in PSO 4700:
- Life sentence/imprisonment for public protection - overview
- Punitive periods of a life sentence
- Release, supervision and recall
Directgov has useful information about types of prison sentence and how sentences are decided – find out more.