Penal reformers have long fought to make ultimate penalties more humane. They have sought, with some success, not only to abolish the death penalty but also to limit the imposition of life sentences and to ensure that those serving life imprisonment have realistic prospects of release.
Unfortunately, concerted efforts are being made in several jurisdictions to reverse the trend. The right to impose capital punishment is being reasserted. The use of whole life sentences, denying prisoners all hope of returning to free society, is increasing. Countries with the death penalty, which also had life imprisonment with a possibility of release, are now adding whole life sentences with no hope of release.
This lecture will explore these countertendencies and apparent drift towards authoritarian populism. It will argue that this drift is facilitated by a failure in many countries, including the United Kingdom, to resist the (re)introduction of inhumane punishments that have no place in a constitutional democracy.
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Dirk van Zyl Smit is Professor of Comparative and International Penal Law at the University of Nottingham. From 1982 to 2005 he was Professor of Criminology at the University of Cape Town, where he was also Dean of the Faculty of Law from 1990 to 1995. In 2012 he was Global Visiting Professor at the New York University School of Law. In recent years he has also held appointments as a visiting professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin, the Paul Cezanne University in Aix en Provence and the Catholic University of Leuven.
He holds BA and LLB degrees from the University of Stellenbosch and a PhD from the University of Edinburgh. In 2008 he was awarded an honorary doctorate in law by the Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University of Greifswald in Germany. He has been an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Penal Law in Freiburg and a Senior Fulbright Research Fellow at the New York University School of Law. He is also an Advocate of the High Court of South Africa.