The top human rights court in Europe ruled Tuesday that a prison sentence of life without parole is inhuman and degrading treatment, and violates the European Convention of Human Rights. The 16–1 ruling calls into question the life sentences of three men convicted of murder in the United Kingdom, holding that inmates must have some opportunity for their sentences to be reviewed and some prospect for release.
Life without parole is a common sentence in the United States, particularly as an alternative to the death penalty as states abolish or limit its use. But as the human rights panel points out, the punishment is significantly less common Europe, with nine countries having no life terms at all, and the majority of others having “a dedicated mechanism for reviewing the sentence after the prisoner has served a certain minimum period fixed by law.” Spain, Germany, and France have already deemed life without parole unconstitutional. No European Union member country has the death penalty, and abolition of the death penalty is a precondition for becoming a member of the European Union. The United Kingdom, however, maintains a life sentence that the Grand Chamber deems equivalent to life without parole, with limited but unused opportunities for a member of the executive branch to commute the sentence, or for compassionate release of a dying prisoners. The human rights court ruled that these mechanisms do not provide an incentive for prisoners to rehabilitate, nor do they account for the possibility of dramatic reform by a prisoner. They explain:
It is axiomatic that a prisoner cannot be detained unless there are legitimate penological grounds for that detention. …[T]hese grounds will include punishment, deterrence, public protection and rehabilitation. Many of these grounds will be present at the time when a life sentence is imposed. However, the balance between these justifications for detention is not necessarily static and may shift in the course of the sentence. … It is only by carrying out a review of the justification for continued detention at an appropriate point in the sentence that these factors or shifts can be properly evaluated.
Moreover, if such a prisoner is incarcerated without any prospect of release and without the possibility of having his life sentence reviewed, there is the risk that he can never atone for his offence: whatever the prisoner does in prison, however exceptional his progress towards rehabilitation, his punishment remains fixed and unreviewable. […]
Furthermore, as the German Federal Constitutional Court recognised in the Life Imprisonment case, it would be incompatible with the provision on human dignity in the Basic Law for the State forcefully to deprive a person of his freedom without at least providing him with the chance to someday regain that freedom. It was that conclusion which led the Constitutional Court to find that the prison authorities had the duty to strive towards a life sentenced prisoner’s rehabilitation and that rehabilitation was constitutionally required in any community that established human dignity as its centrepiece. […]
In the United States, the use of life without parole is expanding, even as the U.S. prison population eclipses that of every other country. The U.S. Supreme Court did rule in 2011, however, that mandatory imposition of the punishment is unconstitutional as applied to juveniles, reasoning that a child’s character is not as “well formed,” meaning both that they are prone to recklessness, and that their traits are significantly more likely to change over time.
As the New York Times explains, the European court is not part of the European Union’s structure, “but its judgments are binding on countries that have signed the convention and have led many governments to alter specific laws to comply.” This means the United Kingdom may now feel compelled to change its law to accommodate some sort of review. While the court shies away from prescribing a particular review, it does suggest that a prisoner’s sentence should be reviewed at least every 25 years.