Life Sentences in Europe

By Charles Hanson, from insidetime issue December 2010

Charles Hanson turns his attention to the life sentence

Life Sentences in Europe

Starting out on my life sentence some years ago, and being somewhat naïve about what the sentence actually entailed, I was soon put right by those more enlightened lifers. Those who seemed to be on first name terms with Government ministers and those working in the Home Office, or their solicitor, had told them something and who can argue with that for it has to be true doesn’t it?

Round one; Britain is going to have to fall in line with Europe, which means the life sentence and life license will go and lifers will only serve a fraction of the time they serve now.
False: Britain does not have to fall in line with Europe for it is already in line with it, and very much part of it.

Britain is a member of the European Union which has 27 member states with 3 countries waiting to join. We are also represented at the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, have judges sitting on the European Court of Human Rights, including the Vice President of that court, Nicholas Bratza, a UK judge and QC. And we have 87 MEPs in Brussels. Indeed, at a meeting of the Council of Europe Council of Ministers on the 9 0ctober 2003 (Rec(2003)23), and in respect of life sentences, it set down the standards expected of all countries in dealing with lifers, thereby acknowledging that the sentence is neither illegal nor unwarranted and this has been borne out by an actual case heard by the European Court of Human Rights some years ago.

Of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe only five countries do not have the life sentence – Spain, Portugal, Norway, Croatia and Serbia. And whilst Spain can impose a thirty year sentence for murder it has few lifers. Portugal, which was the first country in the world to abolish the life sentence, now has a maximum sentence of 25 years for murder with the possibility of parole depending on the sentence, whilst Norway has a maximum of 21 years for murder; again with the possibility of parole depending on the length of sentence. Serbia, like Croatia, has 40 year terms for murder. These countries however, like Spain, have few lifers. None of these countries abolished the life sentence because of some European diktat or some political pressure from outside. They perhaps realised, as some senior judges and politicians in the UK do, that the offence of murder has widespread differences in motive and degrees of violence used, which might increase or decrease the minimum time one will spend in prison, what is known as the tariff.

None of the European bodies have any plans to abolish life sentences and it really is up to individual states on how they sentence as long as it does not breach human rights law.


Holland came out tops with the many lifers I lived alongside during my years in prison and it was all based on rumours, like the rumour about the UK having to fall in line with Europe.
Since 1878, after the abolition of the death penalty in Holland, life imprisonment has almost always meant exactly that: the prisoner will serve his term in prison until death. Holland is one of the few countries in Europe where prisoners are not granted a review for parole after a given time. Though the prisoner can appeal for parole, it must be granted by Royal Decree. An appeal for parole is almost never successful; since the 1940s, only two people have successfully filed a request for clemency, both being terminally ill. In Holland, offenders with severe personality disorders and those with a history of violent or sex offences can be detained in special forensic psychiatric institutions (‘TBS hospitals’) after having served their prison sentence. Since 1928, the Courts in Holland have had the option to impose a combination verdict on offenders with severe mental disorders: a prison sentence and a penal hospital order – the ‘TBS’ – meaning ‘at the disposal of the government’. The main aims of this penal hospital order are protection of society and treatment of the offender in order to rehabilitate prisoner/patients into the community. Although some offenders will remain indefinitely as is happening at present with many lifers and IPP prisoners in the UK. And some will never be released.


Sweden was another country, I was reliably informed, where serving a life sentence was a ‘doddle’. Swedish law states that the most severe punishment is, "prison for ten years or life", and so, life imprisonment is, in practice, never shorter than ten years. However, a prisoner may apply to the government for clemency. In practice, having his life sentence commuted to a set number of years, which then follows standard Swedish parole regulations. Clemency can also be granted on humanitarian grounds. The number of granted clemencies per year has been low since 1991, usually no more than one or two. Until 1991 few served more than 15 years, but since then the time spent in prison has increased and today the usual time is at least 20-22 years.


Denmark was another country that was held to have a progressive prison system where lifers only serve about 8 years, like other North European countries I was told, but it really is not as simple as that.

A life sentence in Denmark theoretically means until death, with no parole. However, prisoners are entitled to a pardoning hearing after 12 years, and upon motion of the minister of justice, the Danish King or Queen may grant a pardon, subject to a 5-year probationary period. Prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment serve an average of 16 years, more for cases considered to be particularly grave. Prisoners who are considered to be dangerous can be sentenced to "indefinite detention", and such prisoners are kept in prison until they are no longer considered so. On average they serve 9 years before being released and then they will remain on probation for 5 years.


France and Belgium came very well recommended but I was dubious given the false information I was given about the more liberal progressive countries like Holland, Sweden and Denmark. And I was right to have been sceptical for in France, inmates jailed for life are eligible for parole after 18 years served, or after 22 years for repeat offenders. Since 1994, for child murder involving rape or torture, the Court can impose a term of 30 years or decide that the defendant cannot be paroled. It is possible to give a reduction of this term for serious signs of social re-adaptation, past 20 years if the terms are to 30 years and past 30 years if the inmate is under a decision that he cannot be paroled. Life imprisonment can be given for aggravated murder, treason, terrorism, drug trafficking and other serious felonies resulting in death or involving torture.

Coming to Belgium, life imprisonment, theoretically, means imprisonment until the prisoner dies. However, a life sentence is assimilated to 30 years imprisonment. To determine when the prisoner will become eligible for parole, he can apply after a third of that sentence has been served if convicted of a first criminal offence, or after two thirds if one has a previous criminal record. Parole has to be granted by a jurisdiction, and the judgement can be appealed. Alternately, release can be postponed, even if the prisoner is eligible for parole, or is at the end of his sentence or if the trial court has added a security period "at the disposal of the government".


I thought about Switzerland, a country that seemed to me to be one where there was little crime. Life imprisonment is however the most severe penalty under Swiss penal law. It may be imposed for a small number of intentionally committed felonies: murder, genocide, hostage-taking and the act of arranging a war against Switzerland with foreign powers. Those sentenced to life in prison may be released on parole after having served no less than fifteen years in prison, or after ten years in exceptional cases. In addition to any penalty imposed, offenders may be sentenced to detention if they have committed or attempted an intentional felony, punishable by imprisonment of five years or more, aimed against the life or well-being of other people (such as murder, rape or arson). And if there is a serious concern that he or she may repeat such offences. The detention is of indefinite duration, but its continued necessity must be examined by the competent authority at least once a year.

Considering the three countries that have abolished the life sentence, Norway seemed to be the most progressive where the maximum penalty is 21 years. It is common to serve two-thirds of this and only a small percentage serve more than 14 years. The prisoner will typically get unsupervised parole for weekends etc as lifers do in UK open prisons after serving 1/3 of the punishment, or 7 years. In extreme cases a sentence called "containment" can be passed. In such a case the offender will not be released if deemed to be a danger to society. This sentence is however not regarded as punishment, purely as a form of protection for society. There is no minimum term, and as long as the protective aspect is fulfilled, the subject can be granted privileges far beyond what is extended to people serving normal prison sentences. And this might well apply to many who would at one time have been lifers.


Poland, set free from the yoke of communism, seemed a likely candidate for a progressive approach to lifers, but that was another mistake. In Poland the prisoner must serve at least 25 years in order to be eligible for parole. The court may also choose to set a higher minimum term than 25 years at sentencing. Since the reintroduction of life imprisonment in 1995, the highest maximum term is 50 years.


And lastly Germany, where the minimum time to be served for a sentence of life imprisonment is 15 years, after which the prisoner can apply for parole. The German Constitutional Court has found that life imprisonment without the mere possibility of parole to be antithetical to human dignity, the most fundamental concept of the present German constitution. That does not mean that every offender has to be released, but that every offender must have a realistic chance for eventual release, provided that he or she is not considered dangerous. In cases where the offender is found to pose a clear and present danger to society, the sentence may include a provision for "preventive detention" after the actual sentence. This is not considered a punishment but a protection of the public, like Norway, and elements of prison discipline that are not directly security-related will be relaxed for those in preventive detention. The preventive detention is reviewed every two years until it is found that the offender is unlikely to commit further crimes. Preventive detention may last for longer than 10 years, and is used only in exceptional cases.

South America is where life sentences have practically disappeared. Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Columbia and Uruguay having abolished them like Mexico but in place one can expect to serve up to 60 years in some of the harshest and most corrupt prison systems in the world. And it is likely that were the UK to abolish the life sentence there are already commentators suggesting that Parliament would introduce laws to replace them with sentences ranging around the 30 year mark. With the added provisions for further detention of those still assessed as being dangerous as some European countries do.

Having found out what lifers faced in other European countries and the periods served by offenders in those countries not having the life sentence, I resigned myself to just serving out my time for I knew nothing was going to change that, not even any so-called new European laws.

Charles Hanson formerly resident at HMP Blantyre House

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Comments about this article

6/12/2010 rosie cash - -

y cant this bloody country be like the overs it is makeing me sick to say i am english i am a shamed of this country putting ppl away from there loved one and not even giving them a date to look forward to comeing home this ipp should be stop now and for ever give ppl a chance in life this country has got to get to grips on this ill thought out ipp,THE GOVERMENT WONTING TO SAVE MONEY WELL THERES A START GET RIDE OF IPP ....

11/12/2010 John James -

Thousands of lads and men, sons, husbands, boyfriends were given these ipp sentences with no regard to how it would work. The courts stated they had to do certain courses then they'd be released, they lied. So if a court of law can lie, politicians can lie, why dont they correct themselves and put this right? How many more lives have to be taken before they do the right thing? lads are committing suicide, lads who desperately want to put something bk into society are having their hearts ripped out of them.
Please do something for these lads, dont just sit around promising.. thousands of people are suffering here..
I agree with Rosie Cash.. the government want to save BILLIONS OF POUNDS .. ??? they could get this by releasing these lads.. allow them to work from the outside instead of keeping them caged, we're supposed to be a civilised society.

20/2/2013 roberta knights -

I have read the comments and feel that courts,probation and prison are not doing enough to keep people OUT if prison ,offenders commit another crime because life is cushier on the inside than the standard of living they have on the out side of orison Should England bring in a 30/40 year rule for murder then less would be committed .Don't get me wrong Im not bias I know people in side.People have lost lives ,people need help in sorting out there offence .persons need help not locking up ! Give en home,job and help .lot haven't got these and why lot crime is committed .I'm not saying murder and u get a descent job etc .Would u murder someone if u were facing 40 year or death penalty ?

10/7/2013 jan

To the poor deluded people who advocate limited life sentences maybe you should be the family who have had a loved one killed
Or the parents of a son or daughter whose life has been taken by another there is no justification for taking the life of another
But to only get 15 to 20 years is an affront to all normal people's thinking to take a life should be punished by life imprisonment

10/7/2013 Errol

It is also about control and good order in the prisons. If a person knows they are never going to get out then they can assault or kill other prisoners and/or staff with impunity (and this has happened); because they can only serve one sentence.
By people having a release date based upon actual risk and behaviour they know, if they want to get out they must be good.
Most murders are domestic (ie people known to each other) and happen in a moments madness; these people pose very low risk to anyone else.

20/10/2014 Jason Weber - -

I'd like to speak to you in order to glean some more knowledge about European sentencing practices. Please contact me if you have an opportunity (and still read this!).


Post a comment

This article appears under the following categories...
Foreign Nationals
Overseas/Foreign Prisons

Summary of headlines for December 2010
Priority for former prisoners
A Time for Giving
Short tariff IPP, what next?
Joint Enterprise
Her Majesty’s Prisons limited
Hidden Impact
Forgotten prisoners?
Give prisoners access to the internet and let them ‘join the conversation’
Families in the dock
Current page: Life Sentences in Europe
‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’
High Court Rules Independent Adjudicator Must Give Reasons
Foreign Intercepts
Month by Month
Miscellany at Law

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