What is Life Imprisonment?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Life imprisonment is a punishment offered by criminal courts in many different countries. Not all countries have this form of punishment. The sentence may be defined as having to spend the rest of a person’s life in jail, though there are some discrepancies with this definition. It is usually thought to be the second most severe punishment, next to the death penalty, and it tends to be most exercised if a person has committed an extreme crime.

San Quentin State Prison in California.
San Quentin State Prison in California.

Understanding the concept of life imprisonment means differentiating from what may be called a life sentence. Sometimes a life sentence is a specific period of years, perhaps 20 or 30. After that time, people may get paroled if they have behaved well. Alternately, a judge may sentence someone to life imprisonment and it’s possible that at a set point the person still may be released. Some people have committed so many crimes that they end up with hundreds of years of sentences to serve, which are in effect life imprisonment, with one exception. If these sentences can be served concurrently, they may still mean possibility of parole.

In some countries, life sentences are used only for the most offensive crimes.
In some countries, life sentences are used only for the most offensive crimes.

The real life imprisonment tends to mean that there is no chance of getting out, ever. This could be life without possibility of parole and it means the person will be in jail until he or she dies. The profoundly severe nature of this sentence is often reflected in the crimes to which it might apply. People who have committed treason against a country or murdered others may be most likely to receive life. Many countries also view this as an appropriate punishment for those who have participated in significant dealing of illegal drugs or whose actions are so horrific, the chance of redeeming the person through the “correctional system” are considered impossible, such as when people rape children.

Life imprisonment is often given to someone convicted of murder.
Life imprisonment is often given to someone convicted of murder.

While it may be good to reflect that people who commit atrocious crimes might get life imprisonment, the sentence may be misapplied depending on the country. In many countries with significant human rights challenges, a life in jail might occur from very different activities. These could include criticizing government figures, behaving in a manner that conflicts with a fundamental interpretation of a religion, or other things. As much as life imprisonment may be a good in protecting society members, it can also be a way to control members of society who might oppose the status quo. Some countries do not stop at recommending a life in prison sentence, but proceed directly to execution.

Many countries view life imprisonment as appropriate for those who have committed treason or significant drug dealing.
Many countries view life imprisonment as appropriate for those who have committed treason or significant drug dealing.

There are countries that don’t possess a life imprisonment charge, and some critics of most penal systems suggest this punishment is misapplied, given endemic torturous living standards of many prisons. Some even go so far as to say such imprisonment constitutes abuse and that people would almost be better off with a death sentence. Others argue that horrific crimes deserve maximum sentences. Such arguments are unlikely to be fully settled, even as most countries attempt to perfect fair justice systems.

A significant dealing of illegal drugs can produce a life sentence in some countries.
A significant dealing of illegal drugs can produce a life sentence in some countries.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Cafe41-Some opponents to the death penalty also object to this form of punishment for religious reasons. Many people of Christian faith object to the taking of any life, as they feel that life is sacred and should be protected at all costs.

They believe that while the person may have committed a heinous crime, they will be judged upon their natural death and should be offered an opportunity to repent their crimes and change their life for the better.

There will always be a lot of debate on cases like this because the issue is not black and white.

Still others say that the fact that innocent people have been wrongfully accused and sentenced to death should be enough of a reason to do away with the whole system entirely because that is one mistake that we can never make.


GreenWeaver-There are many death penalty countries that have expanded the death penalty to other crimes other than murder or treason.

For example, in many Middle Eastern countries female adultery is punishable by the death penalty. There is a well publicized case out of Iran in which a Muslim woman was accused of committing adultery against her husband and is sentenced to death by stoning.

The women has not been executed yet, because there is so much public outcry and numerous heads of state have even offered to grant asylum to the women, but the Iranian government still would not release her.


Oasis11-I agree with you. I have also heard that the costs of life imprisonment versus death penalty argument.

Many say that it takes so long to actually execute someone and it is so costly compared to the number of executions that actually take place. I feel that the crime rates of the states that actually impose the death penalty vs. life imprisonment have lower crime rate levels.

Those that are for capital punishment argues and rightfully so, that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to violent crime and should be upheld.

Others argue that the life imprisonment pros and cons show that crime may go down in states with a death penalty, but it does not totally eradicate crime altogether.

Violent murders still occur in states with a death penalty, so some people question the deterrence argument. The debate between life imprisonment vs capital punishment goes on.


Anon87812- That is a great question and if it were up to me they would be lucky to get life imprisonment.

Studies have shown that pedophiles have a high recidivism rate and are very likely to commit these heinous crimes again.

If you add the incestuous aspect of that particular crime, I would say that those types of people should never be let out of a prison.

If they can harm their own precious children that way, they clearly will harm all children and should never be let out of prison, in my opinion.

While critics of the capital punishment cases often say that life imprisonment costs are too great, I say that if the person is a danger to society and can harm young children, they should never be allowed to walk the streets.

There is no monetary figure that can be placed on a child’s ruined life. We have to protect our children because they are our future.


should a person be sentenced to life without parole if he or she is convicted of rape and incest of his or her own kids?

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