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A life sentence comprises a minimum term of imprisonment, which is determined by the court and must be served in full, after which the offender may be released on life licence when the Parole Board determines it is safe to do so. For the most exceptionally grave offences the court may impose a whole life term which means that the offender is never subject to Parole Board release. The average time served in custody by offenders discharged from a life sentence in 2012 was 14 years.
A life sentence is mandatory for murder, and this Government has introduced a new mandatory life sentence for a second very serious sexual or violent offence. In addition, Parliament has put in place a maximum penalty of a life sentence for other very serious offences. When imposing a life sentence it is for our independent courts to determine the minimum term to be served in custody for the purposes of punishment and deterrence. There is statutory guidance to the courts on determining the minimum term under a life sentence for murder. Once the minimum term has been served in full, it is for the Parole Board to determine whether or not the offender is safe to be released on licence, which lasts for the rest of the offender's life with the possibility of recall to custody at any time. Many offenders serve longer than their minimum term, and some are never released.
This information is published annually in April and can be found in Table A3.5 of the Annual Discharges tables 2012 via the following link:
These figures have been drawn from administrative IT systems which, as with any large scale recording system, are subject to possible errors with data entry and processing.