What is life imprisonment

Is a Life Imprisonment Really Life?

It is widely believed that life imprisonment in Germany 15 years amounts to. But does this view really correspond to the facts? When can a life sentence be imposed under German law?

I. Which offenses are threatened with life imprisonment?

The relevant criminal offenses can be found in the Criminal Code (StGB) and the International Criminal Code (VStGB). A distinction must be made between different categories of offenses. The contribution excludes the VStGB and concentrates only on the StGB.

1. Mandatory imposition of a life sentence

In the StGB there it two Offenses that necessarily result in a life sentence: murder and the particularly serious case of manslaughter.

2. Life imprisonment or imprisonment not less than ten years

This category includes, for example, high treason against the federal government and a number of Qualification offenses, with which at least frivolously causing the death of a person. Under a Qualification offense one understands the extension of a Basic fact around aggravating punishment Constituent elements.

Example: Dangerous bodily harm is a qualification for simple bodily harm (basic offense). Dangerous bodily harm is characterized by the more dangerous manner of inspection (for example with a weapon or with poison) and associated with it increased penalties.

Examples For Qualificationsthat result in a life sentence or imprisonment sentence of no less than ten years: robbery or extortion resulting in death, arson, death in extortion, or causing a death in explosives.

3. Life imprisonment or imprisonment of at least five years

This category includes, for example, the particularly difficult case of treason and relationships that endanger peace in a particularly difficult case.

II. How long is a life sentence?

The opinion of the general public that a life sentence in Germany is 15 years is very persistent. However, this assumption is incorrect. In the German criminal justice system there is two Types of imprisonment that early and the life imprisonment. The early imprisonment has one Minimum size of one month and a Maximum of 15 years. Life imprisonment is basically actually for a lifetime.

In 1977, however, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that human dignity dictates that every prisoner should at least chance must have to get free again.

From the decision:

“One of the prerequisites for a humane prison system is that those sentenced to life imprisonment generally have a chance to enjoy freedom again. The possibility of a pardon alone is not sufficient; Rather, the rule of law requires that the conditions under which the execution of a life sentence can be suspended and the procedure to be used should be regulated by law. "

Thereupon the legislature introduced § 57 a StGB. According to this provision, the court can suspend the remainder of a life sentence if:

  • 15 years of the sentence have been served,
  • the particular gravity of the guilt of the convicted person does not require further enforcement,
  • this can be justified taking into account the security interests of the general public and
  • the convicted person consents.


III. Summary

  • Life imprisonment is possible not only for a murder conviction, but for a whole range of offenses.
  • A life imprisonment in Germany is basically a lifetime. After 15 years in prison at the earliest, however, there is the possibility, under certain conditions, of suspending the rest of the sentence.


Regensburg, December 4th, 2019