European Union Against Life Imprisonment

A Green Paper published by the European Commission (COM-2004-334) on the 30th April 2004 confirmed what Mid-Dlam Ghad-Dawl has been arguing for years. The European Commission is proposing a total reconsideration of the punishment of life imprisonment leading towards its abolition on a Union wide basis. This, in the light of a proposal to align the forms of punishment in theUnion, in what may be considered as one of the first tangible steps towards a European Criminal Code.

Abolishing life imprisonment would be justified from the point of view of the objective of reeducating and rehabilitating the offender. As is well known, a person’s conduct can change during imprisonment and the absence of all hope of ever being released will not stimulate efforts at reintegration.

The Commission’s analysis demonstrates that life purports various meanings in the different Member States. A life-term can be substantially reduced in certain jurisdictions, whereas in others a long- term definite sentence can practically amount to life imprisonment. Certain states prescribe a minimum, which must be served before gaining eligibility for early release ranging from 10 years inBelgiumto 26 inItaly. However, in a large number of members this is set at 15 years.Maltafollows the English system, whereas this minimum may only be established at the discretion of the judge in the form of a recommendation to the Prime Minister. Otherwise, life imprisonment literally means imprisonment until death.

The Commission is suggesting the replacement of life imprisonment by fixed-term sentences, or else reviewing the situation of the offender regularly. For the most serious crimes, associated with certain personal characteristics, which represent a manifest threat, consideration could be given to the possibility of reducing the penalty to a fixed period of, say, 20 to 30 years, the offender’s situation being regularly reviewed, or ensuring that the situation of offenders sentenced to unlimited terms come up for periodic review.

Early release may be made subject to various conditions, notably victim compensation. Mid-Dlam Ghad-Dawl believes that victims’ rights are not safeguarded by a harsh sentencing policy that undermines rehabilitation and prevents social integration. Victims’ rights should be properly targeted through a proper legislative framework in whichMaltais still far back behind EU standards. This should be complemented by dedicated victim support services, as will be provided by Mid-Dlam Ghad-Dawl in Victim SupportMaltato start operating in the months to come.