Should a life sentence mean life

What life imprisonment means in Europe

Vienna - The verdict was expected - and it sparked a heated debate in online forums. Because although submarine builder Peter Madsen received the maximum sentence for the murder of Kim Wall, he could theoretically be released in twelve years. The average life sentence in Denmark is 15 years. Given the cruelty of the act, a potential judicial scandal, many say.

So does lifelong mean lifelong? Actually not, because there is no prospect of dismissal, it violates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Article 3 prohibits inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment. In the past, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) repeatedly condemned states that made early release impossible or did not clearly define the criteria for it.

Preventive detention instead of imprisonment

What is certain, however, is that in severe cases, imprisonment for the rest of your life is possible. Because even if there is the first chance of parole in Denmark after twelve years, that does not mean that the judge will then give in to the request. In Austria and Germany, after 15 years behind bars, you have the first opportunity to be paroled. According to estimates, the average length of imprisonment for life convicts in Germany is around twenty years, says András Csúri, criminal law scholar at Utrecht University.

If a person is found guilty of a particularly dangerous crime in Denmark, which has been committed in an exceptionally serious manner, and the convicted person's history is linked to the crime, preventive detention may be imposed instead of a prison sentence. This measure must already be written into the judgment and will be applied indefinitely, says Anette Storgaard, professor at Aarhus University in Denmark. According to Storgaard, the average time in custody is 15 years. However, it will be evaluated as life imprisonment earlier. However, a person remains in preventive detention as long as there is a risk of relapse.

"Test case for the rule of law"

Similar to the trial of the mass murderer Anders Breivik in Norway, the Peter Madsen case was a "test case for the rule of law", says Tapio Lappi-Seppälä, professor of criminal law and criminology at the University of Helsinki. The legal systems of the Nordic countries in Europe are increasingly following the principle that prison sentences should be limited. The approach aims to ensure that offenders can be part of society again after serving their sentences.

Preventive detention is therefore imposed in very rare cases, as Lappi-Seppälä notes, and only when the risk of relapse is high. In addition to preventive detention, there is also the option of forcibly committed mentally abnormal law breakers to psychiatric facilities. According to the professor, 300 to 400 people are in such institutions in Finland alone, a tenth of all prisoners in the Scandinavian country.

Implementation of measures in Austria

The system of preventive detention also exists in Austria: the execution of measures. It can either be imposed if the offender is insane. In this case, the execution of the measure is chosen instead of a prison sentence. Or it is imposed on offenders who are not insane, but who have committed the act under the "influence of a mental or emotional abnormality", as the Ministry of Justice says. Then the convicted person is transferred to the prison after serving his sentence. This is what happened in the case of the double murderess Estibaliz C., the ice cream parlor owner, who walled up the corpses in a cellar compartment.

Criticism of Austria's implementation of measures came in 2015 in the form of a judgment by the ECHR. The judges in Strasbourg criticized the fact that the situation of the people in the implementation of measures is not evaluated regularly enough. In one case, it took 16 months before a possible dismissal was discussed in court. For the ECHR a violation of the human rights convention. "A meaningful and humane life imprisonment must not completely take the perspective of release," says Csúri and refers in this connection to other ECtHR rulings: for example against Cyprus and Hungary, which were criticized because they did allow for early release provided for a presidential pardon, but this was hardly or not at all practiced in practice.

Convicted British

Great Britain was also convicted by the judges in Strasbourg in 2013 because the British code did not clearly regulate whether the Justice Minister could pardon prisoners who were serving life sentences. London responded, and British judges made it clear that the law requires the Attorney General to pardon those sentenced to life imprisonment "in exceptional circumstances" - for example, if the convicted offender has only a few weeks to live.

In principle, there are three approaches to long-term imprisonment in Europe. For example, there are no life sentences in Norway or Croatia. "The maximum possible length of a prison sentence in the Croatian criminal law is 40 years, in exceptional cases even 50. That can de facto amount to a truly life imprisonment," says Csúri. Most European legal systems provide for life imprisonment with the option of parole. The point in time, however, varies from when a parole can be pronounced. A criminal can be conditionally released in Albania from the age of 25, in Austria and Germany from the age of 15 or in Ireland from the age of seven.

Relation to crime rates

Some European states provide for an actual life sentence, for example England, the Netherlands or Bulgaria, where, however, at the time of the offense or when the judgment is pronounced, pregnant women are exempted from an actual life sentence. Since the constitutional amendment in 2004, life imprisonment without the prospect of conditional release has also been possible in Switzerland. However, it has never been imposed.

Whether tougher maximum sentences can lower the crime rate is difficult to answer, says Lappi-Seppälä. Too many variables could be responsible for variability. However, a comparison of the four Nordic countries in Europe shows that crime rates have developed similarly over the past 50 years, with the number of prisoners in Finland falling by a third. "This means that a reduction in the number of inmates did not change the crime statistics," says the Finnish law professor: "The reasons for changes are more of a social and cultural nature." (Bianca Blei, April 25, 2018)