Sentencing in murder cases

This public attitudes survey was designed to test the assumption that the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment is necessary to maintain public confidence in the criminal justice system.

Key findings

  • There is no evidence of widespread public support for automatically sentencing all convicted murderers to life imprisonment, although the level of public support increased for more serious cases of murder.
  • These findings confirm previous research by Professor Mitchell that the public believe different scenarios warrant different sentences; given the choice in a range of cases, they would support applying different sentences. Although at present it is unclear how far there is a consensus about what constitutes a particularly serious murder.

  • The vast majority of people incorrectly assume the murder rate in England and Wales has increased over the past decade, or at the very least has stayed the same, when it has actually begun to decline somewhat. 

  • A large proportion of those surveyed underestimated the length of time that most murderers spend in prison before being released on life licence.


  • If the law is to broadly correspond to public opinion, serious consideration should be given to restructuring the law of murder so that the mandatory life sentence is retained only for particularly serious cases. A recommendation along these lines was made by the Law Commission in 2006, but no action was taken by the Labour government. The coalition government has committed to publishing a Green Paper on sentencing and rehabilitation in late 2010.
  • Professors Mitchell and Roberts also called for greater awareness and better understanding of the state’s response to murder, in an effort to produce greater confidence in the criminal justice system.

Project details



Professor Barry Mitchell, Coventry Law School

Funding programme

Law in Society

Grant amount and duration


January 2010 - August 2010