How Long is a Life Sentence?

How long is a life sentence? Is asked when a person knows the maximum penalty that can be imposed for a charge is a life sentence. The meaning of a sentence of life imprisonment varies substantially among different jurisdictions in Australia. A life sentence is the heaviest penalty a Court can impose in Australia. In 1990, Life sentences were introduced in NSW. Since then, a number of individuals have received life sentences, and some of them have died in prison.


Heinous and extremely serious cases result in life sentences. 


For example, the heinous crime of child murder. The standard non-parole period of murder, for example, is 20 years. However, in the case of more aggravating circumstances such as the murder of a child or police officer, the non-parole period is increased to 25 years.

If you have been charged with a serious criminal offence, you should speak to a top criminal defence lawyer in Sydney.


Section 61 Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999

This section creates mandatory life sentences for certain offences if the prosecution can establish certain requirements. In the case of murder, these requirements are;


  • There was an extreme level of culpability (criminality by you), and
  • The community interest in retribution, punishment, community protection and deterrence can only be met through imposing a life sentence.

Discretion to impose a life sentence

The Court has the discretion to impose life sentences. The two-step process applied by the Court is;


  • Must make a finding on the facts of the case that the level of culpability is so extreme that a life sentence is warranted; and is satisfied
  • Must consider whether the offender’s personal or subjective circumstances are capable of negating the need for a life sentence.

However, even if the Court is satisfied with the above requirements, the Court has the discretion not to impose a life sentence. This is seen in R v Merritt (2004) NSWCCA, where it was stated that where the subjective features of an offender justify a lesser sentence, the Court can still choose not to impose a life sentence.