Life imprisonment

Life imprisonment sentences cover a diverse range of practices, from the most severe form of life imprisonment without parole (LWOP), in which a person is explicitly sentenced to die in prison, to more indeterminate sentences in which at the time of sentencing it is not clear how long the person will spend in prison.

What all of these sentences have in common is that at the time the sentence is passed, a person is liable to be detained for the rest of his or her natural life.

Understandably a lot of campaigning efforts against inhuman sentencing of children have focused on the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole. But this means other forms of inhuman sentencing have been ignored. We are concerned that as replacements for the death penalty and life without parole, States are handing out lengthy sentences to children, including where they are liable to die in prison, but are escaping international condemnation.

We look not only at explicit life sentences (with or without the possibility of parole) but also other forms that could effectively equal the same thing. It is simply not good enough for State to replace one inhuman sentence with another.

Life imprisonment around the world

67 States retain life imprisonment as a penalty for offences committed while under the age of 18 and a further 49 permit sentences of 15 years or longer and 90 for 10 years of longer. Life imprisonment and lengthy prison sentences are not the preserve of the diminishing few, they can be found in the laws of the majority of States. In March 2015, CRIN launched a global report setting out these findings.

As part of the inhuman sentencing campaign, CRIN has produced country profiles examining the legality of life imprisonment and the maximum prison terms that can be applied to children around the world:

You can also explore our research on life imprisonment around the world on CRIN’s interactive map on our new deprivation of liberty campaign website.

You can find out more through CRIN’s regional publications: Life in the European Union*and Life in the Commonwealth.

Human rights standards

International human rights standards universally condemn life imprisonment without parole for children, and now the United States is the only State which continues to sentence children to this form of extreme sentencing. This focus on the worst forms of the sentence, however, has disguised the practice of less severe or overt forms of life imprisonment. The United Nations has begun to look at life imprisonment of children more generally and in November 2012, the General Assembly urged States to consider repealing all forms of life imprisonment for children. The Human Rights Council, meanwhile, has called on States twice to prohibit life imprisonment of children in law and practice.


*This report was funded by the European Union.