OPBP Publishes Report on Life Imprisonment

Olivia Flasch - 5th September 2016

OPBP is delighted to publish a Report on the imposition of life sentences that well exceed the life expectancy of the convicted person. It contains a comparative analysis of nine jurisdictions, and asks four questions: 1) how is an individual sentenced in each jurisdiction, 2) what restrictions are there on sentencing to life imprisonment, 3) what are the mechanisms for early release, and 4) what policy justifications and human rights concerns are used to justify the jurisdictions’ stance?

The Report was commissioned by the Namibian Supreme Court, which is currently considering the case Zedekia Gaingob and Two Others v The State. The defendant, Mr Gaingob, received, at the age of 36, an effective sentence of 67 years for, inter alia, murder and housebreaking. This makes him 103 years old by the time he will have served his sentence. Therefore, in effect, Mr Gaingob has been condemned to die in prison. The Namibian Supreme Court approached OPBP, inviting submission on whether Mr Gaingob’s sentence is constitutional in light of the internationally-cited Tcoieb case, the guarantee against inhuman and degrading treatment in art. 8(2)(b) of the Namibian Constitution, and state practice and regional jurisprudence on the matter.

The Report, which covered eight national jurisdictions and one international jurisdiction, found that the manner in which an individual is sentenced to life differs greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. While ‘life imprisonment’ in most jurisdictions tends to lead to a specified number of years in prison followed by parole, in some jurisdictions, it does in fact constitute imprisonment for the remainder of a person’s life, without the possibility of parole. Restrictions on life imprisonment include requirements to take into account the proportionality principle and the concept of ‘human dignity’, as well as restrictions based on the age of the offender. As for early release mechanisms, most jurisdictions allow for a ‘merciful’ release, related to release on compassionate grounds. In some jurisdictions, a specific number of years must have been served before such merciful release, while other jurisdictions are silent as to the number of served years. Finally, there are various policy justifications used by each jurisdiction to justify their stance on life imprisonment. These include retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, public interest concerns, and denunciation.

The completion of this report would not have been possible without the dedicated team of student volunteers who provided research of the highest quality. OPBP also wishes to thank Mr. Karl Laird for supervising this project, Olivia Flasch for acting as the student co-ordinator, the Dean of the Oxford Law Faculty Professor Anne Davies, the entire OPBP Executive Committee, and Mr. Michael Rhimes, an OPBP-funded intern at the Supreme Court of Namibia, for being instrumental in the completion of this project.

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