A life sentence is a criminal sentence in which someone is sent to prison for life, usually for a very serious crime. In actuality, many prisoners with such sentences can eventually apply for and receive release through a parole program, although sometimes a court specifically bars this by sentencing someone to life without parole or providing consecutive life sentences, making it impossible to parole a prisoner. This is usually reserved for cases where there are grave concerns about releasing the prisoner.
Not every nation allows life sentences. In those that do, they are used for crimes deemed serious breaches of social norms, such as murder and multiple violent robberies or rapes. Treason and crimes resulting in serious injuries to innocent bystanders may also merit a life sentence, and some nations also impose this punishment for drug trafficking. The law usually spells out cases where the life sentence is appropriate, and judges may have some discretion in applying it.
With a basic life sentence, a judge may set out terms like 25 years to life, indicating that the prisoner must serve at least 25 years before being considered for parole. For some crimes, when a person is sentenced to life, the law automatically mandates that the person serve out a set period of the sentence before being eligible for parole. In parole hearings, people will consider the nature of the crime, the person's behavior in prison, and input from victims and the community when deciding whether to release the prisoner.
Life without the possibility of parole is a very serious sentence, reserved for cases when a judge absolutely wants to ensure that a prisoner will remain in prison for the rest of his natural life. In this form of life sentence, people are not eligible for parole at any time. Likewise, consecutive life sentences can be used in a similar manner, in addition to reinforcing the severity of a crime. These prisoners will only be released if they are exonerated of a crime by new evidence or information that was not available at the time of the original trial and sentencing.
Costs associated with life imprisonment can be high, although they are not as high as handling a death penalty case and providing for prisoners on death row. In some nations where the death penalty is still used, some advocates have suggested abolishing it and replacing it with life sentences for prisoners convicted of crimes where the death penalty is used.