Why a “Life Sentence” Doesn’t Necessarily Mean for Life

In the News

When someone convicted of a crime receives a life sentence, that doesn’t mean that they will spend the rest of their life in jail. In the case of the Granby girl’s murder, her stepmother must serve at least 13 years before applying for parole. What does this mean? 

Only for serious crimes 

Life sentences are reserved for the most serious crimes like murder, aggravated sexual assault, and kidnapping. However, this doesn’t mean that someone convicted of these crimes will serve a life sentence. In most cases, a life sentence is the maximum punishment that can be imposed. Such maximum sentences are reserved for the most serious cases.  

However, someone convicted of murder will always receive a life sentence.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that they will spend the rest of their life in prison. Depending on how serious the crime was, the offender will be forced to spend many years in jail before they are allowed to apply for parole. This is called the “parole eligibility”. 

  • Someone convicted of first-degree murder must serve at least 25 years. 
  • Someone convicted of second-degree murder must serve at least 10 years, and a maximum of 25 years. 

Period of detention depends on the severity of the murder 

During sentencing, a judge must decide how long a convict must wait before applying for parole (parole ineligibility). This depends on many factors, such as: 

  • the need to denounce the crime 
  • the need to deter other similar crimes 
  • the possibility of rehabilitation 
  • the need to protect the public 

In cases of someone guilty of several first-degree murders, consecutive life sentences may be imposed by the judge. This means that the offender may have to wait 50+ years before applying for parole.   

These consecutive life sentences are being challenged and the Supreme Court is expected to rule on their constitutionality in the coming months. This means that the Supreme Court will decide whether the consecutive sentences are legal or not. 

Parole eligibility does not guarantee freedom 

Once an offender serving a life sentence becomes eligible, they can apply to the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) for release. When reviewing parole applications, the PBC’s primary objective is ensuring public safety. An offender must meet two conditions to be granted parole: 

  • they will not present a risk to the public by reoffending, and 
  • their release and reintegration will protect society by ensuring they are a law-abiding citizen 

If they are granted parole, an offender serving a life sentence will spend the rest of their life under the supervision of the PBC. This means that the PBC will impose restrictions on the offender’s freedom to protect society and any victims while the offender lives in society. 

In some cases, it can take many years before an offender is granted parole. The PBC says that it rejects 70% of first-time full parole applications.