What is a “life sentence”?

On average, murderers will serve around 17 years of a life sentence before they are released from prison. So why do they call it a life sentence? And why are they released early?

Does life really mean life?

The short answer, no.

Criminals over the age of 21 who are successfully convicted of murder in England and Wales will automatically receive a “mandatory life sentence”.

Murderers aged 18-21 will receive “custody for life”, while those under 18 will receive “detention during Her Majesty’s pleasure”.

But only in the rarest of cases will the offender spend a lifetime behind bars.

Each year, around 300 people in England and Wales are given a life sentence for murder, while 200 people annually are released having served their prison sentence.

Despite receiving a “life” sentence, murderers will only serve a minimum term in prison, which is dictated by the Judge.

What follows is a life “on licence” with the probation service, commonly known as parole. The Parole Board is responsible for releasing the prisoner back into the community and will decide whether it is safe to do so.

Only in exceptional circumstances will a murderer receive a “whole life” sentence, whereby they will never be released. There are currently only around 59 people serving this type of sentence, including the likes of serial killers Peter Sutcliffe, Ian Brady, Dennis Nilson and Rosemary West.


If and when a murderer is released, they will spend the rest of their life sentence “on licence”. The Parole Board will place the murderer under the supervision of a probation officer, who ensures that the offender complies with the terms of their release.

Ordinarily, these terms may include restrictions on certain types of employment (such as working with juveniles or vulnerable people), travel and residency.

Breaching the terms of release will result in the offender returned to jail.


There is no “one size fits all” approach to sentencing a murderer. The Judge is responsible for handing out a “minimum term”, or, if appropriate, a whole life sentence.

Generally, a whole life sentence will be dispensed to a murderer who has:

  • killed a child with a sexual or sadistic motivation;
  • killed with a view to advance a political, religious, racial or ideological cause;
  • murdered having previously been convicted of a murder;
  • and/or murdered a police officer or prison officer in the course of his or her duty (since 2015).

Whole life sentences are followed by 30, 25, and 15 year minimum terms. The length of term will reflect the severity of a case.

Offenders aged 17 and under will receive a minimum term of 12 years or more.

Minimum terms can be reconsidered after taking aggravating factors (factors which can increase the term, such as premeditation, abuse of trust and concealment of a body) and mitigating factors (factors which can shorten the term, such as mental disorders, self-defence and age) into account.

Again, the average time someone will spend in prison is about 17 years, though this can vary from as little as three years (as demonstrated in a recent case involving assisted suicide) to whole life sentences.

Salhan & Company Solicitors

We are recognised for our expertise in defending murder cases, with particular experience in gang-related offences.

If you, or someone you know is facing a murder investigation, our most experienced solicitors will provide expert support during detention or questioning while our detailed approach to defence preparation involves close analysis of the circumstances and every aspect of the prosecution evidence.

Our focus is to build a robust defence, including on the grounds of intention, self-defence or provocation, or by exposing weaknesses and flaws in circumstantial evidence forming all or a significant part of the prosecution case. In some cases, it may be appropriate to seek a reduction in a murder charge to manslaughter.

For more information on Salhan & Company Solicitors’ criminal law defence services in Birmingham and the UK, contact us here or find us at our criminal solicitors Birmingham office.