Life imprisonment

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The life-long (also life- long ) imprisonment is in many states , in which the death penalty has been abolished, the highest punishment known to criminal law . Within Europe , life imprisonment has been abolished in Bosnia and Herzegovina , Croatia , Montenegro , Norway , Portugal , Kosovo and Vatican City . Spain got it on July 1st, 2015, Serbia Reintroduced in 2019.


In the Imperial Criminal Code of 1871, the adjective was always used for life , during the time of National Socialism it was sometimes used for life (outside of the Criminal Code, however, there were earlier laws with life long ). In 1953 the penal code of the Federal Republic of Germany changed it to lifelong , the penal code of the German Democratic Republic kept the word lifelong. The Swiss Criminal Code uses lifelong, the Austrian Criminal Code lifelong.


In the sanctions law of antiquity and the Middle Ages , deprivation of liberty played only a very minor role as a punishment. Usually only perpetrators were sentenced to life imprisonment if they were actually supposed to be executed , but were pardoned by the respective ruler or - in the case of inquisition trials  - revoked their teachings or their beliefs for fear of death.

German criminal law

In Germany, life imprisonment is a deprivation of liberty for an indefinite period. After at least 15 years imprisonment, the penalty can for parole be exposed, in this case, the probation period of 5 years ( § 57a of the Criminal Code ). On March 31, 2017 51,643 people were in the Federal Republic of Germany as a whole in prison (48,609 men and 3,034 women), of whom 1,831 sentenced to life imprisonment (1,720 men and 111 women) and 561 in preventive detention (560 men and one woman). Preventive detention is not a prison sentence, but a measure of reform and security . However, it can mean life imprisonment for the convicted person.

Design of the legal consequences

The life imprisonment is defined in Section 38 (1) StGB as an exception to the early imprisonment, since its duration is indefinite. If there is a legal reason for moderation, they are replaced by a prison sentence of 3 to 15 years ( Section 49 (1) No. 1 StGB).

According to Section 54 (2) of the Criminal Code, the life imprisonment can not be imposed as a total sentence made up of the sum of individual imprisonment sentences. Even a hundredfold serious robbery is sanctioned with a maximum of 15 years imprisonment, but not with 1500 years imprisonment.

According to Section 54 (1) StGB, only one life imprisonment is formed as a total sentence out of several life imprisonment sentences . This regulation was introduced by the 23rd StrÄndG of 1986 ( BGBl. I p. 393). Since then, judgments such as "twice for life for double murder" are no longer permissible. In this case, however, the convicted person is often attested in the verdict as having “particular severity of guilt”.

In juvenile justice , the life sentence does not apply. Here the maximum penalty is 10 years youth penalty , for adolescents who are convicted of murder under youth criminal law, 15 years youth penalty if 10 years are insufficient due to the particular gravity of the guilt ( Section 105 (3 ) Youth Court Act ).

In the case of adolescents who are convicted under adult criminal law, a prison sentence of 10 to 15 years can be recognized instead of the possible imposition of life imprisonment ( Section 106 (1) Youth Court Act).

Constitutional admissibility

A convicted person must be given the fundamental and legally stipulated possibility of regaining freedom at some point. Only the possibility of a pardon after z. B. 30 or 40 years imprisonment is not enough. According to a decision of the Federal Constitutional Court of June 21, 1977, this is dictated by the rule of law and human dignity ( BVerfGE 45, 187 ). The life imprisonment is just compatible with the Basic Law in accordance with the reasons for the decision, but never as an absolute punishment in the sense of a pre-established sentence up to death. The demand for a referendum on the reintroduction of lifelong imprisonment, which constitutes a fixed sentence up to and including death, was classified as unconstitutional by the Federal Constitutional Court in 2017 in its ruling on the second NPD ban proceedings .

Legal regulation of early release

Accordingly, the conditions for early release on five-year probation are specified in Section 57a ​​of the Criminal Code :

  • 15 years of imprisonment have to be served . The times that the prisoner spent in custody as a result of the crime are to be fully taken into account.
  • The release can be justified taking into account the security interests of the general public . On the basis of an expert's opinion, the court has to decide whether it can be assumed that the prisoner will not commit any further criminal offenses in freedom. However, for reasons of proportionality, the presumption that the discharged person will z. B. occasionally acquire cannabis or shoplifting, which justifies further enforcement of life imprisonment. Also, the court cannot justify its negative decision simply by stating that the convicted person has not yet shown in the context of the relaxation of the prison regime that he will not commit any criminal offenses in the future: It must also check whether the prison had rightly not granted any relaxation.
  • No further enforcement may be required due to the particular gravity of the guilt . If the court found such a sentence in its judgment on the imposition of life imprisonment, the Penal Enforcement Chamber determines (usually after around 13 years of imprisonment) how much sentence has to be served in addition to the minimum imprisonment period of 15 years before the convicted person can be released on parole - if this can then be justified, taking into account the security interests of the general public (see above). There is neither a fixed lower nor a fixed upper limit. For example, despite the particular gravity of the guilt, one of Walter Sedlmayr's murderers was released after 16 years, while the serial rapist and murderer of the 1950s Heinrich Pommerenke was given a minimum serving time of 50 years (and after a complaint initially to 42 years, after further legal proceedings reduced to less than 38 years). Particular severity of guilt is to be affirmed if there is a significantly higher degree of guilt compared to comparable offenses - due to the offense (multiple murder, merciless brutality, extremely cruel or excruciating treatment of the victim ), the motives (particularly reprehensible) or the perpetrator's personality (abnormal sexual or violent tendencies). However, it should be noted that to date there has been no legal standardization of the term “special severity of guilt”. When making a decision, courts usually have to orientate themselves towards the reasons given by the Federal Court of Justice. If the life imprisonment was issued as a total sentence , all offenses are assessed together ( Section 57b StGB ).
  • The condemned must consent . The Penal Enforcement Chamber makes its decision upon his application . If it refuses, it can set a kind of blocking period of a maximum of two years (paragraph 4). A new application can only be made after the deadline has expired, whereupon it is checked again, based on the current state of development of the prisoner, whether the requirements for release from prison are now met.
  • The verhängbare addition to the life sentence of preventive detention to § 66 of the Criminal Code is not a punishment but a "detention order of rehabilitation and security" for offenders who continually pose a danger to the community. If this risk no longer exists, preventive detention must also be suspended, albeit with more stringent conditions than the suspension of a life sentence.

A life sentence can end prematurely in individual cases due to incapacity for detention or a pardon . The prisoner must also be given leave of detention under certain conditions ( Section 13 (3) of the StVollzG).

Statistical data on length of detention

The Criminological Central Office has been collecting data on life imprisonment every year since 2002. According to this, a total of 760 people were regularly released from life imprisonment from 2002 to 2015 inclusive (i.e. in accordance with Section 57a ​​of the Criminal Code). On average , they were imprisoned for 18.9 years ( median : 17.0), 13% of them for more than 25 years. This information does not include 235 people sentenced to life imprisonment who were transferred abroad and 24 whose imprisonment was interrupted for health reasons ( Section 455 StPO). Also not included are those who remained in custody during the survey period, as well as 127 prisoners whose imprisonment actually lasted for life because they died while in prison (29 of them by suicide).

Well-known extreme cases are, for example, Heinrich Pommerenke , who died in a penal hospital in 2008 after 49 years of imprisonment, the so-called “ midday murderer ”, who was released in 2015 after almost 50 years in prison, and Hans-Georg Neumann , who has been in prison since January 1962 for over 58 years.


In German law, the Criminal Code (StGB) and the International Criminal Code (VStGB) provide for life imprisonment for various intentional offenses. In fact, life sentences are imposed in Germany almost exclusively for murder ( Section 211 StGB). From 2007 to 2015 there were, according Criminological Central Office 931 sentences to life imprisonment, of which 915 for murder (98.3%). That was hardly any different before 2007 and has been “in the Federal Republic since the Basic Law came into force”.

A life sentence is mandatory for the following offenses:

For certain offenses, the penalty range is "life imprisonment or imprisonment not less than ten years":

  • Planning, preparation or initiation of a crime of aggression ( Section 13 (2) VStGB)
  • High treason against the federal government ( § 81 StGB)

The same range of penalties applies to some qualification offenses in which the death of another person was at least carelessly caused:

In two of these qualification crimes, however, death must be brought about willfully:

  • War crimes involving the use of prohibited methods of warfare ( Section 11 (2) VStGB)
  • War crimes involving the use of prohibited means of warfare ( Section 12 (2) VStGB)

For certain crimes against external security , a life sentence is provided as an alternative to a prison sentence of at least five years:

With the exception of murder and the crimes under the International Criminal Code, all of the above-mentioned crimes expire after 30 years at the latest.

Austrian criminal law

In Section 18 of the Criminal Code (StGB), the Austrian legislature standardized the imprisonment sentence, which can either be imposed for a specific period of time (a maximum of twenty years) or “for life”. The imposition of the life sentence is according to § 36 StGB i. V. m. § 19 JGG excluded for persons who were not yet 21 years old at the time of the crime . Section 46 (6) of the Criminal Code regulates the possibility of conditional release : 15 years must have been served; and it must be assumed that the convicted person will not commit any further criminal acts. After the conditional release, the probationary period is 10 years ( Section 48 (1), last sentence, StGB ).

On average, prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment have spent 22.5 years in prison. This average is well above the 15-year minimum imprisonment period until conditional release and even 2.5 years above the maximum permissible temporary imprisonment period of 20 years. According to other information, the average length of imprisonment is 17 years.

Offenses that are threatened with life imprisonment

Life imprisonment is predominantly imposed for crimes that were committed willfully and which resulted in the death of at least one person. An exception to this can be assisted suicide; the maximum prison sentence for this offense is five years. Offenses that are not related to the death of a person can also be punished with life imprisonment, for example the manufacture and distribution of weapons of mass destruction and the organized drug trafficking, if the perpetrator holds a leading position in the organization concerned. Only for genocide (Section 321 of the Criminal Code), certain forms of crimes against humanity (Section 321a of the Criminal Code) and certain forms of war crimes against persons (Section 321b of the Criminal Code) is a life sentence required; in all other cases it can be an alternative to a temporary sentence limited criminal detention. For the following offenses, Austrian criminal law provides for life imprisonment as a penalty :

Offenses in core criminal law (regulated in the Criminal Code)

  • Murder (§ 75 StGB)
  • Extortionate kidnapping resulting in death (Section 102 (3) StGB)
  • Serious robbery resulting in death (Section 143 sentence 3 StGB)
  • Arson resulting in death (Section 169 (3) StGB)
  • Manufacture and distribution of weapons of mass destruction with the knowledge of their immediate use (Section 177a (2) StGB)
  • Air piracy resulting in death for a large number of people (Section 185 (2) StGB)
  • Intentional endangerment of aviation safety resulting in death for a large number of people (Section 186 (3) StGB)
  • Rape resulting in death (Section 201 (2) StGB)
  • Sexual coercion resulting in death (Section 202 (2) StGB)
  • Serious sexual abuse of minors resulting in death (Section 206 (3) StGB)
  • Genocide (Section 321 (1) StGB)
  • Crimes against humanity (Section 321a Paragraphs 1–3 StGB)
  • War crimes against persons (Section 321b Paragraphs 1–3 StGB)

Offenses in ancillary criminal law (regulated in criminal provisions of other laws)

  • Organized drug trafficking, if the perpetrator occupies a leading position in the organization (Section 28a (5 ) SMG )
  • National Socialist re-employment in different variants if the perpetrator or the activity is particularly dangerous (Sections 3a, 3e and 3f Prohibition Act 1947 )

Swiss criminal law

The Swiss criminal law allows pursuant to Art. 40 of the Criminal Code "lifelong imprisonment " "where the law expressly provided" as maximum punishment. In the other cases, the maximum term of imprisonment is 20 years.

Life imprisonment can be imposed for the following offenses: murder (Art. 112 StGB) and genocide (Art. 264 StGB), serious case of attack on the independence of the Confederation (Art. 266 No. 2 Para. 2 StGB) as well as especially serious case of hostage-taking (Art. 185 No. 3 StGB), crimes against humanity (Art. 264a No. 2 StGB) or war crimes (Art. 264c-h StGB). As in neighboring German-speaking countries, the prisoner must be given the chance to lead a life in freedom again at some point. After 15 years, in special cases even after 10 years, the person sentenced to life imprisonment can be conditionally released by the authorities (Art. 86 (5) StGB). Relaxation of enforcement in the form of work and residential exemption according to Art. 77a StGB is also possible in the case of life imprisonment.

Further offenses, which are threatened with life imprisonment, exist in the Swiss Military Criminal Law . These are, in particular, certain cases of disobedience to the enemy, mutiny before the enemy, cowardice before the enemy, surrender, crimes on watch before the enemy, espionage and betrayal of secrets, military treason, rioting, service in an enemy army, other favoring the enemy , Looting, war robbery or hostage-taking.

In addition to life imprisonment, the Swiss Criminal Code also provides for custody as a measure that can extend beyond the regular execution period of the life imprisonment (Art. 64 ff. StGB). This is not a form of punishment, but a form of averting danger. The so-called custody initiative ( Article 123a of the Federal Constitution), submitted in response to the murder on Zollikerberg and accepted by the people in 2004 , has since determined: “If a sexual or violent offender is considered extreme in the reports that are necessary for the court judgment Considered dangerous and classified as untreatable, it must be kept until the end of its life because of the high risk of relapse. Early release and prison leave are excluded. "

In October 2010, a criminal was sentenced for the first time in Switzerland with the measure of lifelong detention . The judgment is final.

US law

In the United States, since the Sentencing Reform Act was passed in 1984, federal life imprisonment generally lasts until the convict's death. Since then, after November 1, 1987 , offenders convicted by a federal court have not had the option of early release. Only the President of the United States can be a pardon ( Pardon say) or by shortening the penalty ( Commutation allow) a release.

In the individual states , however, different rules apply, in many places the convict is given the right to a second chance. In most cases, a sentence is already imposed in the judgment, which combines life imprisonment with a minimum serving time, after which a release can take place, e.g. B. "15 years to life" or "25 years to life". In other states (similar to Germany) the law stipulates the minimum imprisonment period after which a person sentenced to life imprisonment can apply for parole. B. after 40 years and in California after 50 years. Since no total sentence is normally imposed in common law , the addition of several sentences can result in a total imprisonment period that exceeds the life expectancy of the offender, for example a 200-year sentence. There are also known processes in which prison sentences of several thousand years were recognized. The long serving times are mainly explained by the fact that in many US states the imprisonment of serious criminals until their death is seen as the only acceptable alternative to the death penalty : society is to be protected, the serious criminal is not given a "second chance", but is potential a change in judgment is possible at any time.

As a rule, government officials can issue a pardon or amnesty . But there are also a number of states where there is no option for early release on life imprisonment, whether on parole or pardon.

International overview

Global overview

Legal basis at a global overview:
  • These countries have abolished life imprisonment.
  • Life imprisonment can be imposed in these countries.
  • In these countries life imprisonment can only be imposed on men (in Russia only those under 65 years of age).
  • Status unknown
  • Europe

    In July 2013, the following laws existed in the member states of the Council of Europe:

    • Nine Council of Europe states do not provide for life imprisonment: Andorra , Bosnia and Herzegovina , Croatia , Montenegro , Norway , Portugal , San Marino , Serbia (where it was reintroduced in 2019) and Spain (where it was reintroduced on July 1, 2015 ). The highest permissible prison sentence varies between 21 years (Norway) and 45 years (Bosnia and Herzegovina). In Croatia, convictions for several offenses can be sentenced to a maximum of 50 years.
    • In the majority of states whose criminal law includes life imprisonment, a minimum period must be served before a suspension on probation can be examined. This minimum period of service is in years: Albania (25), Armenia (20), Azerbaijan (25), Belgium (15 or 19 or 23 for recidivists), Bulgaria (20), Germany (15, if the court does not, because of particular gravity of debt, sets a higher limit), Denmark (12), Estonia (30), Finland (12), France (18, exceptionally 30), Georgia (25), Greece (20), Ireland (7 years, except for certain Murder), Italy (26), Latvia (25), Liechtenstein (15), Luxembourg (15), Moldova (30), Monaco (15), North Macedonia (15), Austria (15), Poland (25), Romania ( 20), Russia (25), Sweden (10), Switzerland (15, reduced to 10), Slovakia (25), Slovenia (25), Spain (20; since 2015, before the life sentence was abolished), Czech Republic (20 ), Turkey (24 or 30 or 36 for particularly serious cases), Hungary (20, unless the court would have set a higher limit), Cyprus (12).
    • Five other states ( Iceland , Lithuania , Malta , the Netherlands , Ukraine ) do not have any legally regulated suspension of a life sentence. However, there is the possibility of a pardon.
    • Seven countries stipulate that suspension of life imprisonment is excluded for certain offenses: Bulgaria, England and Wales , France, Slovakia, Switzerland, Turkey and Hungary (since 2019 also Serbia). This is known in England and Wales as a "real life sentence" or "whole life order". The European Court of Human Rights ruled in the Vinter u. av United Kingdom on July 9, 2013 with 16: 1 votes that the regulation in force in England and Wales violates Art. 3 ECHR (prohibition of torture). The above information on the countries of the Council of Europe also originates from this decision. On February 18, 2014, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Strasbourg decision was based on false assumptions and that the current regulation obliges the Minister of Justice to thoroughly examine special exceptions for a release in each individual case.


    Time and again voices from associations and legal scholars are loud to forego life imprisonment completely. Here, critics make the following arguments:

    • It contradicts the idea of rehabilitation in criminal law ( § 2 sentence 1 StVollzG ), because the convicted person is - at least as evidenced by the verdict of the judging court - excluded from society for the rest of his life.
    • The perpetrator is punished in an inhuman way that does not adequately take human dignity into account, primarily because of the very long imprisonment. According to Section 3, Paragraph 2 of the StVollzG , the harmful consequences of deprivation of liberty must be prevented. However, life imprisonment mainly leads to long-term psychological damage: social skills, self-esteem and self-perception are lost, the prisoner isolates himself, no longer sees any perspective, is lonely and atrophied.
    • The company does not benefit from the enforcement of life imprisonment, serious crimes can not be avoided by them. In countries that have abolished them, the number of homicides has not risen, but has decreased.
    • Early release is possible in most states, but some critics consider the application of the relevant paragraphs to be too arbitrary and the relevant conditions to be defined too imprecisely. According to these votes, there are no uniform criteria, in particular for determining the “particular severity of guilt”. In particular, the stipulations of the highest court rulings are vague, if it is only required that the trial court must take into account "circumstances of importance". It is unclear, for example, whether a "special" severity of guilt is to be assumed if the minimum level of guilt necessary for the imposition of life imprisonment has been exceeded, or only if the guilty salary usually given has been exceeded.


    • Werner Nickolai (Hrsg.): Lifelong: Controversy about the abolition of the life imprisonment . Lambertus-Verlag, Freiburg im Breisgau 1993, ISBN 3-7841-0691-9 .
    • Hartmut-Michael Weber: The abolition of life imprisonment - For an enforcement of the constitutional claim . Nomos Verlag, Baden-Baden 1999, ISBN 3-7890-4666-3 .
    • Gabriele Kett-Straub: The life imprisonment: legitimation, practice, remaining suspension and particular severity of guilt . Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2011, ISBN 978-3-16-150741-0 .
    • Benjamin Steinhilber: Murder and Lifelong: Current Legal Problems and Proposals for the Overdue Reform . Nomos, Baden-Baden 2012, ISBN 978-3-8329-7200-4 .

    Web links

    Individual evidence

    1. Serbia enables life imprisonment with no chance of early release. Retrieved December 4, 2020 .
    2. Criminal Code for the German Empire . 1871 ( Wikisource )
    3. For example, in the new version of the paragraphs on high treason and treason from 1934, it is only for life.
    4. ^ For example, the law against the betrayal of military secrets of June 3, 1914, see Reichsgesetzblatt von 1914, p. 195 , § 1, last sentence.
    5. Thomas Fuchs: Poetry and Truth. Observations of a consolidator on a time travel through the criminal code. (PDF) In: May 15, 2010, accessed on August 5, 2018 (Section 4.2.2, p. 15).
    6. ^ Criminal Code of the German Democratic Republic of 1968 in the 1974 version with all subsequent changes. In: Retrieved September 22, 2019 .
    7. Swiss Criminal Code of December 21, 1937 (as of March 1, 2018). In: The Federal Council. The portal of the Swiss government, accessed on August 5, 2018 .
    8. Federal Act of January 23, 1974 on acts threatened with judicial punishment. In: Federal Legal Information System (RIS). Federal Ministry for Digitization and Business Location, accessed on August 5, 2018 .
    9. Federal Statistical Office (ed.): Penal execution. Demographic and criminological characteristics of prisoners as of March 31 , 2017, published on December 14, 2017; (PDF; 734 kB; the file is not barrier-free; accessed on July 30, 2018). These prison statistics also include preventive detention.
    10. ^ Judgment of the Federal Constitutional Court of January 17, 2017
    11. Federal Constitutional Court (3rd Chamber of the Second Senate): Decision of April 30, 2009 - 2 BvR 2009/08 -. April 30, 2009, accessed May 8, 2009 (in particular paragraphs 32 and 33 of the decision).
    12. Press Release No. 49/2009: Constitutional complaint against refusal to suspend the remainder of a life sentence successful. Federal Constitutional Court - Press Office, May 8, 2009, accessed on May 8, 2009 : “The courts refused to release the complainant on probation, referring to his lack of testing in relaxation, without independently checking whether the denial of relaxation by the prison was lawful was. Only if the denial is based on sufficient reason may the prisoner's lack of testing in the prognosis be used without restrictions to his disadvantage. "
    13. Feest / Lesting / Lindemann (ed.): Prison Laws: Commentary. 7th edition. Carl Heymanns Verlag, Cologne 2017, ISBN 978-3-452-28446-4 , Part VII 4. Life imprisonment .
    14. Free after 16 years: Sedlmayr murderer released from prison . Spiegel Online, August 9, 2007.
    15. Silke Maria Fiedeler: The constitutional principle of hope in the penal system - a hopeless case? Publishing house Peter Lang, Frankfurt / Main u. a. 2003, ISBN 3-631-50796-8 , pp. 143-146. Pommerenke was convicted long before the provisions of Section 57a ​​of the Criminal Code; the minimum period of service mentioned was only negotiated between 1993 and 1997 as a result of an application for suspension.
    16. Axel Dessecker: The execution of life imprisonment. Duration and reasons for termination in 2015. Self-published Kriminologische Zentralstelle e. V., Wiesbaden 2017, p. 20 f .; (PDF) accessed on July 31, 2018.
    17. Axel Dessecker: The execution of life imprisonment. Duration and reasons for termination in 2015. Self-published Kriminologische Zentralstelle e. V., Wiesbaden 2017, p. 13 f .; (PDF) accessed on July 31, 2018.
    18. “Lifelines” are imprisoned for 22.5 years on average . Article on from February 25, 2015.
    19. Record prisoner fights for release. In: Retrieved May 22, 2019 (Austrian German).
    20. Swiss Military Criminal Law (MStG) (PDF); accessed on June 23, 2014
    21. ^ For the first time, lifelong custody ordered in: NZZ Online from 7 October 2010
    22. video in 10vor10 of October 7, 2010 (three minutes)
    23. ↑ Call girl killer is kept for life. In: Tages-Anzeiger / Newsnet , May 24, 2011
    24. This information comes from the decision of the ECHR of July 9, 2013, Vinter u. av United Kingdom, para. 68
    25. Serbia enables life imprisonment with no chance of early release. Retrieved December 4, 2020 .
    26. Serbia enables life imprisonment with no chance of early release. Retrieved December 4, 2020 .
    27. ^ Joshua Rozenberg: English law gets upper hand with 'whole-life' sentences upheld . In: The Guardian , February 18, 2014 (English)
    28. See e.g. B. Brenzikofer: Theses on the execution of long prison sentences . 1994, p. 94 as well as Narr: Die Tradition der Menschenrechte. Human dignity and life imprisonment . 1990, p. 60 ff.
    29. So z. B. in the case of Norway, Spain and Cyprus, cf. Weber: The Abolition of Life Imprisonment , 1999, p. 210.
    30. ↑ On this, for example, Doll: Criminal Law as Communication. Achievements and dangers of a new paradigm in criminal law dogmatics . In: Festschrift for Gerald Grünwald . 1999, p. 492.
    31. BGHSt 40, p. 360; on this, Heine: Murder and murder punishment: Fundamental flaws in the German conception and legal reform considerations . In: Goltdammer's archive for criminal law . 2000, p. 209: "[...] in a world that is not ruled by the logic of Pippi Longstocking in Taka-Tuka land, hardly possible."