Masters: How Long is a Life Sentence?

March 3, 2011

[Written by attorney Kyle Masters, an associate at Trott & Duncan]

‘I hope they throw the book at him!’ This is the sentiment sometimes held, if not expressed, by incensed members of the public when a person is charged and/or convicted of a particularly heinous crime.

There are times when, to the public at large, the sentence meted out to a person convicted of a crime seems rational. Other times, this is not the case. But what exactly is ‘the book’ when it comes to sentencing people in Bermuda’s courts for serious crimes?

And is it really thrown at serious offenders by our courts? In Bermuda, a conviction for murder carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment.

The question to be addressed in this article is “how long is a life sentence, really?”

Bermuda’s Criminal Code Act 1907 says that a person convicted of murder faces a sentence of “imprisonment for life”. It then goes on to say that a person sentenced to life for murder must serve at least 15 years before he is eligible for release on license.

You would be forgiven for concluding that a sentence of life imprisonment for murder in Bermuda amounts to 15 years in jail. This is not actually the case. A life sentence under this provision is really two sentences in one. The first part of a life sentence is the part spent actually in custody. This is known as the mandatory minimum sentence.

The second part of a life sentence is the time spent outside of custody on licence. There is no guarantee that a person serving a life sentence will actually be released on licence. There is however, a guarantee that they will have the opportunity to apply for it after meeting certain conditions.

As to the first part of a life sentence, mandatory minimum sentences have been branded unconstitutional by Bermuda’s Court of Appeal. There continues to be debate surrounding the ability of judges to exercise discretion when sentencing persons convicted of crimes in Bermuda in the case of murder.

As the law currently stands, the matter is inconclusive. Since the ruling in the Court of Appeal judges have stepped outside of the confines of mandatory sentencing provisions in the Criminal Code Act when sentencing persons to life for murder. This has lead to two seemingly contrasting views from judges in our criminal courts in recent months. The minimum sentence for murder has been reduced to less than 15 years in the case of one person convicted of murder.

In another, later case, the mandatory minimum sentence has been increased to 25 years. The Privy Council has refused to express a view on this matter. In a ruling last month, the Law Lords did say that the matter of minimum sentences is “clearly one of some constitutional importance”.

Whatever the length of time in prison a person sentenced to life imprisonment actually spends there, that person will continue to endure the punishment of a life sentence for the rest of their natural life. Assuming a prisoner sentenced to life meets all the criteria necessary to satisfy the Parole Board of his suitability for early release, they could be released back into the community on licence. The conditions of a license usually include, amongst others, the prohibition of committing further serious criminal offences, the requirement to maintain full time employment and the requirement to submit to regular supervision by Probation Services.

A breach of any one of the conditions could allow the Parole Board to revoke the licence and recall the person to custody. In the case of a life sentence, those conditions are acutely onerous because of the consequences of breaching them namely, the possibility of returning to prison for the rest of the offenders life.

Whilst life imprisonment may not necessarily equate to spending the rest of your life in prison, it could. A conviction for murder carries with it the automatic penalty of life spent with the threat of prison hanging perpetually in the balance.

- Kyle Masters

Read More About

Category: All, News

Comments (12)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Quinton says:

    Thanks for the explanation Kyle!

  2. Hunterp says:

    Very Informative

  3. W.T.F.??? says:

    Life should mean LIFE INSIDE…
    and you are NEVER coming back out into society..

  4. Thanks says:

    In these times we need to bring back Capital Punishment, a life sentence for these murderers is just too easy. They have the audacity to take someone’s life, some get away with it and those that go on trial get a slap on the wrist (in my opinion)with a ‘life” sentence, there needs to be a greater deterrant for people even thinking of doing these crimes. Its so sad because at the end of it all, they will be judged by the most High and the consequences they will ultimately pay then. THey need to stop living for today, its upsetting to know that they have no care in the world for what really lies ahead, the Devil is trying to take over and these losers are listening to him….the Devil is a liar.

    • Jason says:

      I fail to find the correlation between capital punishment and a deterrent. I’m also confused how you can cite a reference to the devil which has me assume you are religious and ask another human being to kill another (capital punishment). I’m pretty sure its not a stretch to say we all know some formation of the law. I’m sure we’re aware of the penalties etc. So slap on capital punishment please and then show me why this matters. If you genuinely feel life imprisonment is a slap on the wrist I beg you to have your freedom deprived for LIFE or “15 years” if you will and then comment. So if the option for capital punishment is there would it prevent murders? You can ask american states that use capital punishment how that theory is working out for them.

  5. Thanks says:

    By the way thanks for the information on life Sentences, it is clearer to me now, but still feel that “life” is not good enough of a deterrant.

  6. Are you serious . . . says:

    Thanks for the clarity, but what a shame!!! Maybe that’s why younger and younger boys are being recruited to commit these heinous crimes of murder . . . think about it . . . at 20 years old, you get sentenced to life and do the minimum of 15 years, you are coming out at 35. You still have your whole life ahead of them versus the family of the life they took begin serving an eternal sentence from the day their loved one was murdered.

    Maybe we need to take a look at this and add an alternative to life to life without parole and/or life without a day, which would allow the judge to enter harsher sentence. Maybe when they see that “life without a day” means that you sit in jail to the day you die and then have a government funeral in a pine box, these young people might think twice about their actions . . .

  7. US Observer says:

    Thank you Kyle for the information. You are doing a great community service deed by posting this. Let’s take this topic a step further…

    It is my opinion that we really should be looking at the word “life”. What happened to the person’s “life” that was taken by someone who is still alive and breathing? The person or persons who took the “life” of someone else, when granted parole they are still allowed to live, work and carry on with their “life”. 15 years is nothing compared to an entire “life” that can never be brough back to the “life” they could still be living.

    “Life” to me and I’m sure to many people means just that..”life”. You have “no chance” or “no opportunity” of having the “life” you once had prior to the sentence. Wouldn’t a “life sentence” mean that since someone took a life then your life no longer exist – Eye for an Eye?

  8. US Observer says:

    @ Are you serious…I totally agree 100%. If we changed the laws that say “LIFE IS LIFE” no questions asked then I think people will certainly think once, not twice prior to doing something stupid. How dare the legal system PIMP the pubic in thinking that life is not exactly what life means?

  9. PAS says:

    Are there any stats on what people actually serve in Bermuda? e.g. average time inside, least time ever served, etc.

  10. White Jesus says:

    Thanks Kyle! I personally feel that if you must take a persons entire freedom away for the rest of their life then you are practically taking their life. The only difference is that we are clothing, feeding and housing them. Is it not better, for them and society, to simply put them in the ground along with the ‘life’ they sent there; i.e. murdered? The fact that we have these large prisons to cage human beings like animals is a compromise in itself. We allow criminals to change the sanctity of freedom. Humans were not meant to live in cages and we shouldn’t agree to put them there. CAPITAL PUNISHMENT! Live here in peace, or leave here in a three piece!

  11. YungNthuggin says:

    oh you people didnt know?? lol maybe if you didnt read the news for all your information and actually knew people, you would know these things..

    furhtermore, a jail year is 8 months..pick the bones out of that one..