The sentence of life imprisonment is universally either the maximum or mandatory penalty for the crime of murder in the various states and territories of Australia. It is also provided as a maximum or mandatory sentence for some other serious crimes. It is the most severe punishment available in jurisdictions where capital punishment has been abolished. In its ‘truthful’ form it means that the person will serve imprisonment for the term of their natural life. In practice, however, sentences of life imprisonment even when expressed in mandatory terms rarely exist without the eventual possibility of the offender being released. Using the label of ‘life sentence’ can therefore be misleading and rather than being an effective form of denunciation of crime it may be reflective only of populist sentiment for extreme retribution. It will be argued that in those Australian jurisdictions where a mandatory life sentence applies upon conviction for murder it does not provide a mechanism for reflecting, in a transparent and equitable manner, the different levels of culpability that exist between the conduct constituting murder and the offenders responsible for such conduct. The early release of prisoners subject to a ‘mandatory’ life sentence demonstrates that such a sentence was not necessarily an appropriate disposition in the first instance. Thus it is simply being used as a populist ‘law and order’ device rather than a transparent and equitable sentencing option.
Sentencing 2010 Conference. Proceedings of the Sentencing 2010 Conference (Canberra 6-7 February, 2010)