I would like to ask a question regarding life sentence (and I hope it's the right place to ask it).

I live in Greece where life sentence is the heavier sentence a convict can get. But in fact life sentence is not a very accurate term since it's been restricted by law that the maximum imprisonment for a crime is 25 years. Since there is also some terms for early release if 3/5 of sentence have been executed (and some other factors also) or in some cases 4/5 this actual time is further reduced.

Data from wikipedia are not really up to date I think, at least for Greece that is. As I mentioned the maximum imprisonment for Greece is 25 years (for a single crime). Some facts about Greece and time imprisonments are given here (sadly in Greek only).

I am not familiar with legal system in other countries but since I have a rough (biased probably) idea of the US legal system I think that in this country there is not an official upper limit in the time of life imprisonment (although I guess after many years, maybe 50-60 years I don't know, many prisoners are released).

My question is since actual life imprisonment in Greece is about 16-20 years in most cases (there some cases where it could reach 25 years if the terms are not met for early release) what about actual life imprisonment in other countries? Is there a law that in fact convert life time to a specific years in prison?

2 Answers 2


In England and Wales, "life imprisonment" usually does not mean "will die in jail".

At the time a person is given a term of "life imprisonment" (most often for murder, where it is mandatory, but it can also be given for other crimes), the sentencing judge will also specify a "tariff". This is the minimum period they can spend in jail.

After the tariff has elapsed (and not before), the prisoner can apply to the Parole Board to be released "on license". A prisoner released on license can be recalled to prison at any time (but they usually have to do something like breach a condition to live at a specific address). There is usually a substantial period between the end of the tariff, and release on license.

A very few people are given "whole life tariffs". This means that they will die in jail; however following a judgement at the ECHR, such prisoners have to be given a chance for a periodic review of whether the whole-life tariff is still appropriate (the answer is usually "yes").

Note that tariffs are served as-is. There is no "early release" (which is currently 50% for shorter sentences, 25% for longer ones). Thus someone sentenced to life with a 10-year tariff will serve longer inside than someone sentenced to 12 years (and of course, will continue to be subject to recall).

  • By "ECHR" I guess you mean "European Court of Human Rights", right?
    – Eypros
    Nov 22, 2017 at 8:25
  • @Eypros : That is right. Nov 22, 2017 at 8:38

In the U.S. there are two categories of life imprisonment.

Life imprisonment with possibility of parole (often after a certain number of years such as 25 or 40 years), and life imprisonment without possibility of parole (a.k.a. LWOP).

If there is a possibility of parole, once you reach the eligibility point a parole board is allowed to release you subject to supervision by correctional officials and considers whether it will do so periodically based on the offense and your subsequent conduct in prison. This is not granted as a matter of course at the eligibility age. It is common for someone serving a life sentence to be denied parole multiple times before being released on parole and it is not uncommon for someone with a life with parole sentence to die in prison. The parole decision is pretty much in the complete discretion of the parole board.

If there is no possibility of parole and that decision is not overturned in later legal proceedings, the only ways you can be released are with an executive branch pardon (the process varies between the federal system and amongst the various state systems), and sometimes with "compassionate release" in exceptional cases of well behaved inmates who are terminally ill and will die imminently (mostly because this relieves the prison of the cost of terminal illness medical care, and the terminally ill person is harmless). Pardons in these cases are rare, but not unheard of, particularly for crimes other than murder (e.g. a drug mule who was caught with a large quantity of drugs).

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