In 1976, when Canada replaced the death penalty with life imprisonment for anyone convicted of murder or high treason, it did not mark the end of what had been a long and contentious issue. Neither proponents nor opponents of the death penalty have yet reached what could be called a lasting peace concerning the moral, economic and political defensibility of state sanctioned execution. Life imprisonment, and in particular the parole eligibility provisions involved, are a feature of the debate over capital punishment in Canada. Those in favour of the death penalty maintain that the benefits of executing criminals would include considerable cost savings by doing away with the need to maintain large numbers of murderers at public expense over indeterminate and often long periods of time. Opponents of the death penalty, meanwhile, argue that the death penalty does not deter crime. In fact, it is argued by some that the minimum eligibility periods for parole are the next step in a trend towards the humane treatment of criminals and a great advancement for the progress of civilization, when compared to the death penalty.

This paper deals with life imprisonment, both as a sentence and as a major factor in the capital punishment debate. It describes the history and provisions of life imprisonment sentencing and provides a statistical overview of the inmate population serving life sentences in the Canadian prison system, as well as parole issues surrounding life imprisonment and the needs and management of inmates serving life sentences.


The sentence for a convicted murderer in Canada, regardless of degree, is life imprisonment. The person is under sentence for life; a portion of this sentence is served in prison and a portion can be served in the community on parole. The Criminal Code of Canada states the minimum number of years, beginning at the date of arrest, that a person is required to serve in prison before being eligible for parole. However, simply having served the required number of years to reach eligibility in no way guarantees that parole will be granted and, because of the relative uncertainty in the date of parole release, a sentence of life imprisonment is said to be “indeterminate.”

There are four classifications of indeterminate sentences in Canada, three of which involve life imprisonment and a fourth which involves “indefinite detention,” which can be imposed upon being declared a dangerous offender. The four classifications are: life imprisonment as a minimum sentence with no eligibility for parole for 25 years, life imprisonment as a minimum sentence with no eligibility for parole for 10 to 25 years, life as a maximum sentence and indeterminate sentences imposed on “dangerous offenders.”