The sentence for a convicted murderer in Canada, regardless of degree, is life imprisonment. 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: 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 imprisonment as a maximum sentence and indeterminate sentences imposed on “dangerous offenders.”

As of March 31, 1997, there were 632 inmates serving life sentences for first degree murder and 1477 inmates serving life for second degree murder, out of a total Canadian federal penitentiary population of 14,448. The total number of individuals serving life sentences for murder has increased dramatically over the past decade. From 1998 to 1991, the number of individuals serving life sentences for murder increased 21%, and between the years 191 and 1997, there was a 4.4% increase (Correctional Service of Canada, 1997).

Lifers generally involve themselves in a variety of programs during their incarceration because most have a vested interest in serving their time as productively as possible. Lifers take part in sex offender counselling, OSAP (offender substance abuse program), anger management, life skills and problem solving programs. Lifers also become involved in various groups and activities such as a lifers group, chapel and relationship counselling. Some inmates are encouraged to embark on training or education geared to qualify them to perform certain functions within the institution. For example, inmates could be trained as institution hospital orderlies and inmate jobs could be developed as service aids or resource people to augment the services otherwise provided by CSC staff.

The Lifeline Project, operated by St. Leonard’s House in Windsor, Ontario, represents one concrete attempt to provide an inmate management program that addresses the specific needs of both lifers on full parole and those still incarcerated. Started in 1982, the Lifeline Project is a long term initiative aimed at giving lifers new hope in the form of guidance, programs and, eventually, a halfway house designed to meet their particular needs. Phase one of the Project involves giving lifers early in their sentences advice on how to survive the prison culture, keeping inmates informed about judicial reviews, helping formulate future release plans, advising families on how to improve the offender’s chances of early release, sharing program information and assisting with communication problems. Phase two of the Project was to be the establishment of a halfway house for lifers in Windsor, with phase three being an evaluation, revision and expansion of the Project to other parts of Canada. Unfortunately, taking into account zoning problems, funding and public sentiment, the halfway house has not materialized.

Much of the discussion over the past 20 years on how to resolve issues regarding the sentencing of convicted murderers has revolved around the death penalty versus long term incarceration. Although the death penalty was abolished in 1976, many would like to see the return of the death penalty for the most serious murders. Further, Canadian public opinion polls consistently reveal that the majority of the population favours reinstatement of the death penalty because perceptions of the justice system are such that the public believes there is far too much hope that psychopaths or dangerous offenders will receive reductions in their parole eligibility periods. Further, citizens overestimate the percentage of released offenders who recommit property or violent crimes while under community supervision. Experience has shown that the gradual release of offenders through escorted temporary absences, unescorted temporary absences and parole, increases likelihood of becoming law-abiding citizens. The planned gradual release of inmates into the community, through conditional release mechanisms, is designed to ensure the protection of society and is an important and often misunderstood aspect of correctional programming.