Criminology: Understanding Life Licences


Following The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, the life sentence became the ultimate criminal sanction in England and Wales – and its use, in the years since then, rose rapidly. At present, we have just under 7000 life-sentenced prisoners in England and Wales. This is the highest of any European country, and more than the rest of Europe combined (excluding Russia). When sentenced to a life sentence, individuals are subject to two distinct but overlapping forms of punishment: as prisoners, they experience what is called the ‘punishment part’ of a life sentence in prison, remaining imprisoned until they are eligible for release. Following release, they are then subject to a life licence which remains active until their death. The licence places them under a specified set of conditions, which can include supervision, the requirement to reside in a certain area, to not have a phone, to be electronically monitored, to not work certain jobs or with certain groups of people etc. They must comply with all of the conditions that are given to them and failure to do so can result in their return (or ‘recall’) to prison.

Understanding Life Licenses

The video presentation below examines the findings of a recent study of expectations for life on licence conducted with men who are serving life sentences. During the time of data collection, the men remained in prison – and had not yet been released – and as such, the findings are presented as anticipations rather than lived experiences. They are prospective, rather than reflective. Understanding anticipation becomes important for interpreting how power is understood and negotiated in the prison setting and its reach beyond prison, into the community, and the effects it might possibly have.

This lecture has four main parts: the first provides an introduction and overview of life-sentences and life licences which form the basis for the rest of the presentation. It will introduce and explain what these types of sentences are, who serves them, and what they represent in sociological terms. The second area will provide the methodology for the study that was conducted, and an examination of a specific type of penal power know as ‘tightness’. In particular, ‘tightness’ helps to provide an important framing for the participants’ anticipations and the type of power they would be subject to. Once the first two background sections are complete, the presentation will move onto the more substantive third section which examines the findings of the study. These findings are separated into four sections, which each delve into different fears, anticipations, or expectations for life on licence. Examples are provided by the men in the study to illuminate the arguments being made. The fourth and final section considers some of the policy implications for this work, focusing on whether current licencing regimes infringe on human rights regulations and the importance of relationships with probation officers.

Acknowledgement: The findings presented here are based on a recent article written by myself and my supervisor. They form part of a wider study of long-term imprisonment conducted by Professor Ben Crewe, Dr Susie Hulley and Dr Serena Wright at the Institute of Criminology (University of Cambridge) and Royal Holloway, with men and women who were serving very long-life sentences with a minimum tariff period of 15 years or more, sentenced when they were aged 25 or younger.

Video Resource

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Understanding Life Licences worksheet

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