- One aspect of our over-reliance on imprisonment is the number and length of life sentences that our courts impose. Scotland has the highest proportion of life sentenced prisoners in Europe: in 2022, it had 981 people serving life sentences (including those under Orders for Lifelong Restriction)—18.6% of the prison population, 17.71 life prisoners per 100,000 of national population (Council of Europe, Annual Penal Statistics, SPACE I 2022, Tables 10-11).
- The average length of the ‘punishment part’ of a life sentence (the length of imprisonment set by the sentencing judge as the minimum that must be served before release on parole can be considered) is also increasing: from an average of 13.7 years in 2004-05 to an average of 19.1 years in 2021-22 (Scottish Government, Experimental Statistics on the Length of the Punishment Part of Life Sentences and OLRs, Table A).
- After completing the ‘punishment part’ of their sentence, life prisoners will be released only if the Parole Board judges that their continued detention is not necessary for public safety: if the Board judges that they continue to pose a risk to public safety, they can remain in custody for the rest of their lives.
- Even after release, those sentenced to life imprisonment remain on licence, and are liable to be returned to custody for any breach of the licence conditions; life sentences are experienced as ‘whole life’ sentences.
- Proposals to make a ‘whole life’ sentence available to courts (as in the Whole Life Custody (Scotland) Bill put forward in 2019) are thus unnecessary, given the powers already available to courts and the Parole Board; there is no evidence that the judiciary regard those powers as inadequate. They are damaging, since as a matter of basic humanity those in prison must be allowed some hope that they might be able to secure release; that hope also gives them an incentive to comply with the prison regime, thus assisting the maintenance of an orderly custodial environment.