Indefinite imprisonment
Indefinite imprisonment or indeterminate imprisonment is the imposition of a sentence by imprisonment
Imprisonment is a legal term.The book Termes de la Ley contains the following definition:This passage was approved by Atkin and Duke LJJ in Meering v Grahame White Aviation Co....

 with no definite period of time set during sentencing. Its length, rather, is determined during imprisonment based on the inmate's conduct. The goal could be to return the inmate to society or to keep the inmate behind bars for the remainder of his/her natural 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.


While some think the concept of the indefinite sentence is one of the most effective, the Howard League for Penal Reform
Howard League for Penal Reform
The Howard League for Penal Reform is a London-based registered charity in the United Kingdom. It is the oldest penal reform organisation in the world, named after John Howard. Founded in 1866 as the Howard Association, a merger with the Penal Reform League in 1921 created the Howard League for...

 have defined indefinite sentences as "fundamentally flawed".


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.


Indefinite imprisonment was introduced in Queensland
Queensland is a state of Australia, occupying the north-eastern section of the mainland continent. It is bordered by the Northern Territory, South Australia and New South Wales to the west, south-west and south respectively. To the east, Queensland is bordered by the Coral Sea and Pacific Ocean...

 in 2003 under the Dangerous Prisoners (Sexual Offenders) Act 2003. This allows indefinite detention to be imposed on dangerous individuals, particularly sex offender
Sex offender
A sex offender is a person who has committed a sex crime. What constitutes a sex crime differs by culture and by legal jurisdiction. Most jurisdictions compile their laws into sections such as traffic, assault, sexual, etc. The majority of convicted sex offenders have convictions for crimes of a...

s. The remainder of the Australian states (except New South Wales) later followed with similar legislation.

An offender can be incarcerated indefintely 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 indefinite 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.

Indefinite imprisonment has a minimum nominal sentence of 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 on sentence(s) of indefinite 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) who were under his care as a teacher and youth leader from 1972 to 2000 (pedophile Christian Michael Roach (Western Australia) was sentenced to three consecutive indefinite terms with a nominal sentence of 30 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 hanged himself in his cell ten days later).


In Canada, an inmate classified as a dangerous offender
Dangerous offender
In Canada and England and Wales, certain convicted persons may be designated as dangerous offenders and subject to a longer, or indefinite, term of preventive detention in order to protect the public.-Canada:...

 can be given an indefinite prison sentence. This means the offender is at risk for causing a "serious personal injury."

New Zealand

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 William Burton, who murdered two victims and injured four others between 1992-2007. No women have yet been sentenced to preventive detention.

United Kingdom

Indefinite sentencing has been used in the United Kingdom
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 since 2005.

In 2007, the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court ruled that the continued incarceration of prisoners serving indefinite sentences unlawful where the prisons lack the facilities and courses required to assess their suitability for release., bringing up concern that many dangerous offenders would go free.

In 2010, a joint report by the chief inspectors of prisons and probation stated that indefinite prison sentences are unsustainable with the current situation of prison over-crowding in the UK.

United States

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
Parole may have different meanings depending on the field and judiciary system. All of the meanings originated from the French parole . Following its use in late-resurrected Anglo-French chivalric practice, the term became associated with the release of prisoners based on prisoners giving their...

 for crimes of a heinous nature that are not eligible for the death penalty, where the offender will remain incarcerated for the remainder of his or her natural life.

The United States Federal Prison system has no automatic parole, and all offenders must serve at least 85% of their sentences before being eligible for release. Like the LWOP, life imprisonment in the Federal Prison System parole means that the offender will remain incarcerated for the remainder of his or her natural life.
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