Indeterminate, extended and life sentences do not have a fixed prison term attached. They are given for the most serious crimes if the Judge believes that the prisoner poses a threat to the public and usually contain a minimum term, known as a tariff, which the prisoner must serve before being considered for release. The actual date of release is decided by the Parole Board in consultation with the prison.

Life sentences are imposed for murder and some other serious crimes such as rape or armed robbery. The law states that all convictions for murder must receive a mandatory life sentence, whilst for other serious crimes the Judge has the power to impose a discretionary life sentence as the maximum penalty. For the most serious crimes Judges have the option to order a whole life tariff which means that the prisoner will stay in prison for the rest of their natural life. Fewer than one percent of lifers receive whole life tariffs. Today around 60 prisoners are on whole life tariffs. It is expected that the vast majority of lifers will therefore be released at some point.

Previously Judges could also impose indeterminate sentences known as Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) which had no fixed term. In May 2012 the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act abolished IPP sentences and from December 2012 no new IPP sentences have been imposed. Around 6,000 prisoners were sentenced under IPP from their introduction in 2005 to 2012. Prisoners who were sentenced to an IPP sentence will continue under the terms of this sentence.

Extended sentences replaced IPP sentences and are given to those considered a significant risk to the public. Extended sentences have a recommended tariff. Once the tariif has been served prisoners on extended sentences will be assessed and, if judged still to be a danger, can then be kept in prison for up to and extra eight years. These sentences are given for violent or sexual offences.

What is a tariff?
Most prisoners when sentenced to life will receive a set ‘tariff’ which is the time they must serve in prison before they will be considered for release. The tariff is set by the judge following the procedures of the Sentencing Council

Where will the prisoner be detained?
Prisoners given life sentences will start their prison sentence, like other prisoners, in a local prison. They will then usually be transferred to a category B prison which has facilities for lifers. A prisoner will usually spend around three to four years here before moving to a category B training prison and then on to a category C prison. Once work to tackle the offending behaviour and training has been undertaken preparations are made for release. It is possible for a lifer to eventually move to a category D or open prison, but this would only usually be considered after their first parole review. Time in an open prison will give a prisoner who has spent a long time in custody a chance to readjust and prepare for life back in the community. Lifers are likely to move around the country during the course of their sentences which can make it hard for families to visit.

What happens during the sentence?
All lifers have a sentence plan which is reviewed every year by staff at the prison. The plan will address issues such as their offending behaviour and assess their behaviour in prison.  A plan might recommend that an individual undertake an anger management course or a substance abuse course. Each lifer should be able to see the plan and have an opportunity to discuss their progress with staff. There should also be a space on the plan for them to make their own comments on the suggestions made.

Someone serving a life sentence should expect to have their progress reviewed at regular intervals. The prisoner’s personal officer, the lifer liaison officer, a probation officer and other people, such as education or work officers, will feed in to the review and the prisoner will be able to see and offer feedback on the assessment. If the prisoner is judged to have progressed this can result in a change in category or movement to a new prison.

When will the case be reviewed?
Three years before the end of the tariff the case will be referred automatically to the Parole Board for consideration. At this stage the Parole Board does not have the power to recommend release but they can recommend that a prisoner is suitable to move to open conditions.

When the review starts the prison will be asked to compile a parole dossier on the lifer containing reports similar to the ones prepared for progress reviews, details of the offence, details of the lifer’s personal history (including previous convictions), and the lifer’s progress within the prison. The prisoner will be allowed to see these reports and make representations to the Board.

The Board will carry out the review and either decide against release or transfer or arrange a Parole Board hearing.

Parole Board hearings are arranged to allow the Board to find out more about the case by talking directly to the prisoner. They usually take place if the Board are considering transfer or release or would like to clarify details of the review. The prison will arrange for the prisoner to attend the hearing which will also be attended by prison staff, psychologists, witnesses and others involved in the case.

Once the review and hearing is complete the Board will make a decision and write to the prisoner. The prisoner has the right to appeal against the decision by seeking a Judicial Review.
For further information on the parole process see – Getting parole and Parole Board website

What happens upon release?
If parole is granted a prisoner serving life will be released on a licence which will last for the rest of their life. This licence will contain standard conditions and some conditions that are specific to the individual. The standard conditions will include living at a specified address, reporting to a probation officer and not to leave the country without permission.

The specific conditions are designed to reflect an individual’s own circumstances and might include a requirement to attend a certain course or not to enter a certain area. There may also be a condition not to contact the victim of the original offence. Failure to adhere to these conditions can result in a prisoner’s recall to prison.

What about victims?
The Victim’s Charter states that the Probation Service must contact the victim or their family within two months of sentence. The victim or their family can ask to be informed when the prisoner is to be moved, released or to go on an escorted absence or release on temporary license. They can express any worries they have concerning the prisoner’s release and these will be taken into account when license conditions are set.

This page was updated on November 2018