||This article may be confusing or unclear to readers. (July 2010)|
|Criminal trials and convictions|
|Rights of the accused|
|Related areas of law|
Indefinite imprisonment or indeterminate imprisonment is the imposition of a sentence by imprisonment with no definite period of time set during sentencing. Its length, rather, is determined during imprisonment based on the inmate's conduct. The inmate could be returned to society or be kept in prison for the remainder of his/her life.
In theory, an indefinite prison sentence could be very short, or it could be a life sentence if no decision is made after sentencing to lift the term. In many cases, a minimum term is imposed, or the maximum that can be served is the maximum allowable by law in the jurisdiction for the particular offense.
The main rationale for imposing indefinite as opposed to fixed sentences is to protect the community. An offender can then be kept behind bars until it is determined that his/her release would not pose any danger to society.
Uses by location
In some places, indefinite sentences have been around for a long time. In other jurisdictions, they have been introduced more recently.
Queensland's Dangerous Prisoners (Sexual Offenders) Act 2003 authorised the continued detention of sex offenders who had served their term of imprisonment. The other Australian states followed with similar legislation.
An offender who is at least 17 years of age and has been convicted of at least two violent or sexual offences can be declared a dangerous offender and detained indeterminately. A judge must consider the potential of future harm that could be caused by the offender, the circumstances of his or her offenses, medical and psychiatric opinion, and any other matters of relevance. The decision passed by the court is not reviewable; the indeterminate sentence(s) commence upon the expiration of any determinate sentence imposed, and release is only by way of an order from the Supreme Court.
Seven Tasmanian offenders are serving one or more consecutive sentences of indefinite imprisonment as of July 2012.
The Criminal Code Act 1913 (WA) and the Crimes (Serious and Repeat Offenders) Act 1992 (WA) contain provisions for the indeterminate incarceration of youths and adults convicted of particular offenses. The indeterminate sentence(s) commence upon the expiration of any determinate sentence imposed, and are reviewed every three years after that. Release is through a Supreme Court Order or at the discretion of the Governor.
Paedophile Mark Pendleton is currently serving an indefinite sentence to commence on the expiration of 27 years for sexual offences committed against girls between 1977 and 1996, possessing child pornography in his cell, and being the ringleader of a conspiracy with fellow paedophiles to abuse children in Thailand. Another paedophile, Christian Michael Roach, was sentenced to three consecutive indefinite terms to commence on the expiration of 27 years in 2008 for drugging and molesting nine young women and girls and the manslaughter of one of them between 1987 and 1999, but he hung himself in his cell ten days later.
Northern Territory and South Australia
The Criminal Code Act 1983 (NT) and the Criminal Law (Sentencing) Act 1988 (SA) allow for the indeterminate incarceration of a person who is determined to be a habitual criminal and/or incapable of controlling his or her sexual urges.
In South Australia, the indeterminate sentence(s) commence upon the expiration of any determinate sentence imposed, and are reviewed every three years after that. Release is only by way of an order from the Supreme Court.
In the Northern Territory, a prisoner serving indefinite sentence(s) has a nominal sentence set at half the sentence that would have been imposed if not they were not dangerous, or 20 years (25 years in some circumstances) if the sentence imposed would have been one or more consecutive sentences of life imprisonment. The indeterminate sentence(s) must be reviewed by the court when the nominal sentence (the minimum term the offender would have been required to serve if they were not dangerous) has expired, and every three years after.
Australian Capital Territory, Queensland, and Victoria
The Sentencing Act 2005 (ACT), the Dangerous Prisoners (Sexual Offenders) Act 2003 (Qld), and the Sentencing Act 1991 (Vic) govern habitual offenders.
An offender can be incarcerated indeterminately if there is a high probability, given the offender's character, the nature of his or her offense, psychiatric evidence as to the dangerousness of the defendant, and any other relevant circumstances, that the offender poses a serious threat to the community. The indeterminate sentence(s) must be reviewed by the court when the nominal sentence (the minimum term the offender would have been required to serve if they were not dangerous) has expired, and every three years after.
The minimum nominal sentence that can be imposed is ten years, but the sentencing judge can extend this if they believe that the prisoner's criminal history and/or the nature of the prisoner's offending warrants it.
The longest nominal sentence of indeterminate imprisonment is 30 years, currently being served by serial pedophile Geoffrey Robert Dobbs (Queensland), who pleaded guilty to 124 sex offences and one count of attempting to pervert the course of justice committed against 63 girls aged between one month and 15 years (including five family members) under his care as a teacher and youth leader from 1972 to 2000.
In New Zealand, indefinite imprisonment is called "preventive detention", and is handed down to individuals convicted of violent or sexual offences (such as sociopathic murderers, serial rapists or recidivist pedophiles) where it is likely that the offender will re-offend if released. Such individuals will only receive parole if they can demonstrate they no longer pose a threat to the community.
Preventive detention has a minimum period of imprisonment of five years, but the sentencing judge can extend this if they believe that the nature of the prisoner's offending and/or the prisoner's criminal history warrants it.
The longest minimum period of imprisonment on a sentence of preventive detention is one of 26 years, being served by convicted killer Graeme Burton, who murdered two victims and injured four others between 1992 and 2007. No women have yet been sentenced to preventive detention.
Imprisonment for public protection was a new form of indefinite sentence that started being used in England and Wales in 2005, in addition to the traditional life sentence. The imprisonment for public protection sentence was abolished in 2012, although offenders already serving the sentence remained in prison.
Some U.S. states have various forms of indefinite sentencing, and many states have effective indeterminate sentencing with evaluation-based parole.
Most states have a life sentence without the possibility of parole for crimes of a heinous nature that are not eligible for the death penalty (or as an alternative sentence to the death penalty), where the offender will remain incarcerated for the remainder of his or her natural life.
The federal prison system has no automatic parole, so life imprisonment in the federal system means that the offender will remain incarcerated for the remainder of his or her natural life.
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Huge numbers of offenders are being given the jail term, driving upwards the overall number of those in the prison system on indefinite sentences, including life.
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