Death in America: Life in Europe: Two approaches to ultimate penalties.

This session explores the contrasting approaches of the death penalty and life imprisonment, which have been adopted in the USA and in Europe.


The question of how to punish the worst offenders presents great challenges to those who believe that all punishment should be tempered by humanity. The challenges are particularly acute when countries have different ultimate penalties, but are forced to co-operate because offenders move from one country to another. This paper contrasts the different approaches, not only to the death penalty but also to life imprisonment, which have been adopted in the USA and in Europe. It points to the difficulties that are raised by these differences when serious offenders face extradition from Europe to the USA. It concludes by spelling out the challenges that must be met when a more humane approach to life sentences, which Europeans purport to adopt, has to be implemented in practice.


Professor Dirk van Zyl Smit (Professor of Comparative and International Penal Law, University of Nottingham)

Dirk holds BA and LLB degrees from the University of Stellenbosch, a PhD from the University of Edinburgh and an honorary doctorate in law from the University of Greifswald. He is currently Professor of Comparative and International Penal Law at the University of Nottingham and is Emeritus Professor of Criminology of the University of Cape Town. In 2012 he was Global Visiting Professor of Law at New York University. In recent years he has also been a visiting professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin, the Paul Cezanne University in Aix en Provence and the Catholic University of Leuven. His publications include Principles of European Prison Law and Policy: Penology and Human Rights (with Sonja Snacken) (Oxford University Press, 2009) and Taking Life Imprisonment Seriously in National and International Law (Kluwer, 2002). He is currently project leader of a study of life imprisonment worldwide, which is funded by the Leverhulme Trust. 

Professor van Zyl Smit has acted as an expert adviser to the Council of Europe on the new European Prison Rules, on the Rules on Juvenile Offenders subject to Sanctions and Measures and on the Recommendation on the Treatment of Foreign Prisoners, and to the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime for its Handbooks on Alternatives to Imprisonment and the International Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners. He has also advised the governments of South Africa, Bangladesh, Malawi, Malaysia and Bosnia and Herzegovina on new prison legislation.