Life imprisonment
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This article is written by Aniket Pandey, pursuing a Certificate Course in Advanced Criminal Litigation & Trial Advocacy from LawSikho.


Imprisonment is called on to isolate the offender from the society with the purpose of reforming the criminal offender. But as jails have transformed into places of grave human rights violations, the same has been proved counterproductive. Depending upon the gravity of the situation, an individual causing imbalance in the societal peace gets inflicted upon with heavy penalty in the form of life term imprisonment or death penalty. However, there is not much reduction in the crime rate across the globe. Now from the same, it may be concluded that the deterrent theory of punishment has failed to accomplish its purpose of setting an illustrative example preventing the occurrence of similar offences. To conclude, there is no much change reflected in the pattern of offence despite the fact that the same is considered as the highest form of punishment.

It may be noted that punishment is inflicted as a mechanism to avenge upon those who cause harm to the society with an overview of correcting such law breakers. However, by mere conviction, the convict cannot be liberated of his fundamental rights which he otherwise possesses. Notwithstanding the fact the individual is behind the bars, he is a human being and inherently possesses all his fundamental rights which includes human dignity which is violated while being behind the bars. This is in consonance with the thought propounded by Justice VR Krisna Iyer which is “If every saint has a past, every sinner has a future, and it is the role of law to remind both of this”. 

One of the commonest forms of punishment based on the deterrent theory is Life imprisonment. In its ordinary connotation imprisonment for life means imprisonment for the whole of the remaining period of the convicted person’s natural life. It has been surveyed that this punishment exists in 183 out of 216 countries between the year 2009 and 2014. Countries like Spain, Croatia, Serbia and Portugal abolished life sentences a long time ago. However, even then the latest report of the United Nations based on the goal 16 for sustainable progress, life imprisonment has been listed as the most applied form of punishment. The simple reason to the same is the fact that most of the times, courts around the world believe in passing life imprisonment more than capital punishment, also known as death sentence as the same is revocable in nature.

It may be noted that, a survey conducted in the year, 2014 revealed that more than 5 Lakh people are serving life imprisonment around the world and in comparison, to the statistics recorded in the year 2000, which was only 2 Lakh 60 thousand, the report has shown that there has been an upsurge of almost 85% in the quantity of people serving life sentence for the last fourteen years. Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis in their work, The meaning of life have argued that seeing the dramatic upsurge in the life imprisonment which has led to every seven people in prison serving the said sentence, it is the responsibility of the law-makers and advocates to address this issue to put an end to mass incarceration. 

Life Imprisonment and India’s Lapidated Legal system

In India, Section 55 of the Indian Penal Code defines the commutation of life sentence by an appropriate government. And, Sections 121, 132, 194, 302, 303, 364A and 396 of the Indian Penal Code define offences prescribing life sentence for the convict. Further, Sections 72 and 161 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, life sentence means imprisonment for the entire life of the prisoner. Therefore, it would not be wrong to say that Life Sentence occupies a significant place in the criminal justice system of India. Although, a latest entrant into the criminal justice system of India, yet life sentence appears to be inseparably interwoven with her colonial past. Notwithstanding the fact that the relationship between the state and the citizen have undergone almost archetypical shift post-independence, the penal policy of the colonial times and judicial institutions have remained largely unaffected in relation to life sentences.  It is a harsh reality that even though 55.8% of the convicts in India are undergoing life imprisonment, there still exists very little scholarly debate on this punishment. 

It has been often seen as a less rigorous alternative to the death sentence, however, the less severe nature of the punishment is far from the reality. There has been a myth in the Indian society that, Life imprisonment means imprisonment for a period of 14 or 20 years. However, the Hon’ble Supreme Court correcting this perception has rightly held that life imprisonment meant behind bars for life. But isn’t it worse than death to keep a person confined for his entire life in jail rather than taking his life? Such a form of punishment violates the innate rights granted to the individuals both under our Constitution and as per the tenets of basic human rights.

Prior to the existence of life sentences in India, there existed the punishment of transportation which banished the convict into an appointed locality for his entire life, unless the same was remitted by the state. The transition of punishment of transportation to life imprisonment is viewed as something un-endorsed by proper legislative framework which therefore necessitated a complex yet unsatisfactory assortment of judicial and executive orders to fill the legislative lacunae. It may be noted that such arrangements have left the punishment at the risk of being arbitrary. Therefore, placing increased reliance on life imprisonment may only aggravate the existing issues of the criminal justice system than providing any solution. Therefore, a consideration with regards to the abolishment of life imprisonment from our lapidated legal system would be beneficial. 

Life Imprisonment is violative of rights inherent to human beings

Life term imprisonment violates several important rights inherent to a Human being which notwithstanding anything needs protection. Following are some of those important rights which are contravened while a prisoner is serving a life term imprisonment.

  • Human Dignity

It may be important to note that the basis of Human rights across the globe is Human dignity. It is one of the most essential rights, a human being is entitled to notwithstanding anything. Now, there is a violation in the said right when a prisoner serves life term imprisonment. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes every human being to be born liberated and entitled to equal dignity and rights. It is important India being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is bound by the same. Even the Constitution of India recognises every individual to have right to life, liberty and protection to his/her overall fundamental rights. Life term imprisonment contravenes the freedom, and liberty of the individual and treats him unequally among the equals. It is important to safeguard such rights under the law without depriving anyone of his inherent human dignity.

Now, it is a well-founded principle a prisoner is entitled to the valuable rights guaranteed to him under Article 21 of the Constitution. But a prisoner serving a life term imprisonment loses these rights as he remains behind the bars until his death. He is not permitted to move freely within the country limits. It is not that a prisoner cannot be curtailed of his right to move freely but the same should be for a temporary period and not lifetime. Lastly, life term imprisonment only causes grave violation of human dignity and fundamental rights guaranteed to an individual under Article 21 of the Constitution. 

  • Contravention of the Rule of Law

The literal meaning of, ‘The Rule of Law’ is ‘what it says’. An individual needs to obey the Rule of Law and further needs to be ruled by the same. But it is important that such a Rule of Law must be guided by a stable, lucid, and clear in general nature. The same is significant in order to give certainty in the minds of the mass. Now, this certainty does not exist in the penance of life imprisonment notwithstanding the fact that the same can be remitted after serving 14 or 20 years of imprisonment. The reason behind the same is the fact that there exists uncertainty as to whether the person will be set free to reintegrate himself back in the society or not. Such an uncertainty is highly violative to Article 14 of the Constitution which says that ‘equally shall be treated equally’.

  • Medical & Health condition of the prisoners

One of the most talked issues surrounding a prisoner is his medical condition which often worsens due to the pathetic condition of the prison. It may also be due to infectious diseases and the same arises due to lack of care on the part of the prison authority. Furthermore, it may be important to note that the treatment undergone by a prisoner in India is again distressing. Now, it is an undeniable fact that a prisoner is subjected to monstrous degradation on a daily basis. This is due to the insufficient reformative schemes, overcrowded prisons, and lack of proper training to the prison authority staff members. Now, a person serving life term imprisonment is exposed to such monstrous degradations which certainly impacts his overall health and further puts the dignity of the prisoner at risk.

Failure of the Criminal Deterrence Theory

It may be noted that Life Imprisonment is a punishment based on the Deterrence theory. Now there are two different aspects of punishments based on the Criminal Deterrence Theory. Firstly, the punishment imposed on individual offenders will prevent that particular offender from committing any future crime. And, secondly the public shall be educated that certain offences will be penalised, having a general deterrent effect thereby preventing others from committing criminal acts. But unfortunately, the Criminal Deterrence theory has some corroborative flaws which cannot be ignored. The logic behind locking up people behind the bars for longer periods with a view of enhancing public safety is completely flawed. Contrary to the same, longer period of jail sentence results in the increase of recidivism in the prisoner. Further, the Deterrence theory is based on the assumption that the potential offenders must be aware of the punishment they will receive before they commit an offence. 

However, contrary to the flawed assumption, there are a handful of people aware of what will be inflicted on them for a particular criminal offence. Other than this, several studies across the globe have discovered the fact that most of the prisoners are in the state of intoxication while committing the crime. Therefore, those offenders are too impaired to determine the pros and cons of their behaviour rationally. Also, there are many prisoners who have several personality disorders or other mental issues which severely affect their mental power to derive rational conclusions. Lastly, it may be concluded that punishments set out under the said statute have become outdated and there is an urgency to introduce newer changes bearing in mind the purpose of penance being both punitive and reformative.

Failure on the Part of the Law Commission of India

In India, the 262nd report of the Law Commission rightly favoured abolition of death penalty for all offences barring offences related to terror or waging war against the state. However, unfortunately there is not a single review on the abolition of life sentence. For a very long time, the Law Commission under the unremitting pressure of several intellectuals has embarked upon the same exercise with a new dimension. It may be important to note that the same needs no rocket science to find a conclusion. Looking from the perspective of humanity, reforming a criminal and further making him absorb in the mainstream is a probability. Our legal commission should buy the fact that it is the society which manufactures crime itself. The Criminals only fall prey to it for which blaming them alone is incorrect. It is a fact that their crime cannot be accepted, but awarding life sentence would only cause more issues than providing any solution. It is important for the law-makers to think from a broader perspective to devise more ways and means to curb the growing crime by striking at the source of the problem. 

Views and Recommendations 

Eminent Lawyers like Faizan Mustafa have rightly viewed life imprisonment as regressive and dehumanising. According to him, it is a punitive reaction that damages the life of the individual convict. It is not necessary that harsher the punishment higher is the deterrent effect and releasing the convict may put the society on peril. Penalty or punishment should mean to an end and not an end in itself. Another eminent Advocate, Mr. Sanjeev Sirohi also views that life imprisonment should be abolished in India. According to him, a criminal can be reformed, rehabilitated, can be taught values of humanity in the prison itself and further can contribute to the welfare of the society. 

It may be understood that ultimately it is the society who bears the cost of maintaining these prisoners for a longer period of time. There are some recommendations that can be applied to combat the problems with respect to the prisoners undergoing life term imprisonment.

  1. Firstly, abolishing the mandatory life imprisonment is the need of the hour. The rationale behind the same is that these statutes deny the judges liberty to determine whether life imprisonment is proportionate to the crime committed particular to the facts of the matter.
  2. Secondly, in order to strike a balance between the imprisonment so awarded and the offense, the minimum sentence period should be brought low so that the jury/judges have more liberty in awarding lesser imprisonment for less serious crimes.
  3. Thirdly, a committee should be set up to assess the damaging effects of life term imprisonment upon the prisoners. The reason for the same is the fact that since a prisoner is already serving his sentence for an indefinite time, no additional restrictions should be inflicted on them. Furthermore, there is a necessity to alleviate the conditions of the prisoners by providing proper medical help and no abusive treatment. 
  4. Lastly, the body held with the responsibility to evaluate as to who shall go back or be released from the jail must be strictly unbiased and should base their discretion of proper legal procedure.


The longer the imprisonment, the higher is the chance of recidivism. Not only this, a prisoner undergoing the same has his dignity and health put at stake. Therefore, it would not be wrong to say that the same is also violative of the basic human rights. Considering the same, many countries across the world have abolished life term imprisonment. However, even then, it has witnessed an upsurge in its application around the globe. In Indian system, although a latest entrant, life term imprisonment occupies a significant place. Life term imprisonment is not only violative of the dignity inherent to human beings but the same is also uncertain in nature. Its uncertainty makes it violative of the rule of law which must be guided by stability and certainty. Now, even after being so much regressive, the Law Commission has failed to consider its abolishment. Instead of switching to an adequate reformatory method, violation of human rights is given priority. Our Lawmakers altering their priority should take into account the instant issue and thus abolish life term imprisonment.

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