Life imprisonment in Australia


As Marcus Clarke's classic book For the Term of His Natural Life reminds us, life imprisonment occupies a special place in Australian penological history. But unlike the convicts of last century who received such a sentence, contemporary ‘lifers’ rarely end their days within prison walls.

With the abolition of the death penalty in this country, life imprisonment is the most severe penalty available to sentencers. It is a penalty imposed in most cases only for murder. About 600 prisoners, or approximately 5 per cent of the total prison population, are currently serving an indeterminate life sentence in Australian correctional institutions.

How long is a life sentence likely to be? This Trends and Issues suggests that the average term of incarceration of lifers in Australia is about 13 years. However, there exist considerable variations between jurisdictions in the ‘meaning of life’. For example, in Western Australia a ‘strict security life imprisonment’ sentence requires certain prisoners to serve a minimum term of 20 years imprisonment before they may be considered for release on parole.

At a time when ‘truth in sentencing’ has become an important issue in the punishment debate, this paper queries the appropriateness of continuing indeterminate sentences of this type. Greater certainty in the prison terms set for the most serious offences is likely to be viewed with favour by the public and offenders. Judicial officers would also no doubt welcome greater flexibility in setting maximum sentences for crimes at present punishable only by mandatory terms of life imprisonment.