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The Paradox of Scottish Life Imprisonment

van Zyl Smit, Dirk; Morrison, Katrina

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Dirk van Zyl Smit

Katrina Morrison


More people are serving life sentences in Scotland as a proportion of the national population than in any other country in Europe. Yet Scotland claims to adopt a welfarist rather than a penal approach to criminal justice. This paper uses a wide range of data to explain the factors underpinning this paradox. It focuses on key aspects of the imposition and implementation of life sentences, providing, for the first time, an analysis that goes behind headline figures. The paper concludes that, notwithstanding the commitment to welfare in penal policy, the high rate of life imprisonment is driven by both increased punitiveness and attempts to reduce the risk that serious crime poses to society. Finally, the paper outlines strategies for reducing the use of life imprisonment, which may be more effective because they pay close attention to the Scottish penal context, but which have relevance for other jurisdictions seeking to reverse penal excess.


van Zyl Smit, D., & Morrison, K. (2020). The Paradox of Scottish Life Imprisonment. European Journal of Crime, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, 28(1), 76-102.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jan 9, 2020
Online Publication Date Mar 3, 2020
Publication Date Mar 3, 2020
Deposit Date Jan 21, 2020
Publicly Available Date Mar 4, 2022
Journal European Journal of Crime, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice
Print ISSN 0928-9569
Electronic ISSN 1571-8174
Publisher Brill Academic Publishers
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 28
Issue 1
Pages 76-102
Keywords Political Science and International Relations; Sociology and Political Science; Law
Public URL
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