Life sentences are the severest punishment which can be imposed in England and Wales. Their use is also on the increase. People serving indeterminate sentences now account for 14% of the overall prison population, compared to 9% in 1993.
The severity with which people on life sentences are punished — if this can be measured by the periods of time they spend in prison — is also increasing. The average minimum term imposed for murder grew from 12.5 years in 2003 to 21.3years in 2016, and continues to rise. Parole at the end of the minimum term is not guaranteed: 29% of people currently imprisoned on a life sentence have been in prison for longer than this, and some research suggests that the requirements surrounding parole are becoming increasingly complicated and difficult for prisoners to satisfy.
Both the growing use of life sentences, and the increased barriers to release from prison, raise important questions.
First,is the increased severity of the sanctions imposed justified and proportionate, and does it reflect a greater degree of dangerousness among today’s prisoners than was posed by those who committed similar offences in generations past?
Second,what impact do such long sentences have on the possibility (and nature) of rehabilitation? What does rehabilitation mean, in the context of a life of which two or three decades might be spent in prison? How do people change inside?
It is not easy to answer this question using data from the past — because no past cohort of life-sentenced prisoners has served such long periods of incarceration in such large numbers. Sentences once considered outlandish and extreme are now routine. Yet most lifers are eventually reintegrated into the community without further offending: only 4.3% are convicted of a further offence within a year, as compared to 48.3% of the overall prison population. Little is understood about the processes underlying this outcome. Currently, the research available on how people change inside during long prison sentences only gives an incomplete picture. This project aims to fill some of those gaps.