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In England and Wales, life imprisonment is a sentence that lasts until the death of the prisoner, although in most cases the prisoner will be eligible for early release after a minimum term set by the judge. In exceptional cases, however, a judge may impose a "whole life order", meaning that the offender is never considered for parole, although they may still be released on compassionate grounds at the discretion of the Home Secretary. Whole life orders are usually imposed for aggravated murder, and can only be imposed where the offender was at least 21 years old at the time of the offence being committed.
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Until 1957, the mandatory penalty for all adults convicted of murder was death by hanging. The Homicide Act of that year limited the circumstances in which murderers could be executed, mandating life imprisonment in all other cases. The death penalty for murder was suspended for five years by the 1965 Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act and was abolished in 1969 (1973 in Northern Ireland) since which time murder has carried a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment.
The Criminal Justice Act 2003 introduced new mandatory life sentences and created a new kind of life sentence, called "imprisonment for public protection" which could be imposed even for offences which would otherwise carry a maximum sentence of ten years. The consequent unprecedented levels of prison overcrowding prompted sentencing reform, including stricter criteria for the imposition of such sentences and some restoration of judicial discretion, in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. Imprisonment for public protection was abolished by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, although some prisoners remain incarcerated under the former legislation.
Life imprisonment is applicable only to defendants aged 18 and over. Those aged under 18 are sentenced to detention at His Majesty's pleasure. Any convict sentenced to a life sentence can in principle be held in custody for their whole life.