How long a Sentence is Life?


It can be extremely distressing when you find out a loved one has been given a sentence of life imprisonment.

Life sentences can be given to someone who is guilty of a very serious crime, such as Murder; Aggravated Sexual Assault; Sexual Intercourse with a Child under 10 years; Large Commercial Drug Supply, Manufacture or Importation.

Even though the outcome of life imprisonment may in some cases be expected, it can still be a shock to everyone concerned when it is actually handed-down.

You will probably have a lot of questions about you or your loved one’s future, and what will happen to them in jail.

How long was a life sentence before ‘truth in sentencing’?

According to a report by the Australian Institute of Criminology, the average duration of a life sentence was 13 years before the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act (‘the Sentencing Act’) came into effect in 1999.

Back then, life imprisonment did not mean that an offender would stay in jail until they died, unless there were particularly serious circumstances surrounding the case, or if they committed multiple severe offences that would prevent their release at any point in the future.

In many cases, life sentences could be reduced or commuted to a shorter term.

Whether or not this would happen depended on the evidence against the offender, the type of offence/s committed, and the quality of work undertaken by their criminal defence lawyers.

How long is a life sentence now?

The Sentencing Act changed all of this in 1999 by introducing ‘truth in sentencing’.

Since that time, a sentence of life imprisonment means that the person will spend the rest of their natural life in prison.

The fact that a crime carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment does not necessarily mean that the offender will receive life.

Rather, the sentencing judge can consider a range of matters when deciding the appropriate sentence, including the objective seriousness of the particular offence/s and subjective features of the offender.

There is one crime, however, that carries a mandatory life sentence and that is Murder of a Police Officer.

What can I do to help my loved one in jail?

One of the most important things that you can do to help a loved one in prison is to continue your relationship with them while they are incarcerated.

Having connections with the world outside can provide inmates with much-needed support, and improve their mental health.

If you can’t visit regularly, writing letters is a good way to help them keep in touch with what is happening in your life and the family’s life, and provide them with an outlet to share their feelings and emotions.

If you are concerned about your friend or family member’s physical or emotional wellbeing at any point, it is important to take your concerns seriously and actively seek help for them.

You can speak to the staff at the prison if you are worried, and they can arrange medical or psychiatric help where necessary.

Hearing that a loved one has been sentenced to life imprisonment can be devastating, and it is important that you have enough support to help you cope with the shock and feelings of uncertainty you may have about the future.

Children can be particularly affected by having a parent in prison, and there are a number of support organisations available to help children with practical and emotional support.


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About Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Sydney's leading firm of criminal and traffic defence lawyers.
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