In Star Trek: Discovery,

Michael Burnham

is sentenced to life for mutiny. How long is a life sentence in that?

In Europe, a life sentence can be as little as 15 years, and some countries have a maximum of 25 years. Has canon ever established what the limits are in the Federation or Starfleet?

  • 2
    The show was produced in the USA, which has actual life sentences (life of the prisoners), as opposed to the "life of your dog" sentences that you mention. So it probably means exactly that.
    – Adamant
    Commented Mar 2 at 19:34
  • 3
    It seems odd to call a sentence with a maximum duration a life sentence in the first place. Otherwise, life is for life, with the question of when you might be eligible for parole being a separate issue.
    – chepner
    Commented Mar 2 at 19:35
  • 4
    @chepner - You're subject to the terms of the sentence for your whole life. You can always be returned to prison if the authorities think you present a risk of committing future crimes, even if you haven't done anything yet.
    – Valorum
    Commented Mar 2 at 19:42
  • 1
    OK, yes, that's my understanding of a life sentence in the US as well. (When you really, really are going to be spending the rest of your life in jail, the sentence pronounced is something like "life without a chance of parole. Otherwise, I think 25 years is the common minimum before eligibility for parole.)
    – chepner
    Commented Mar 2 at 21:01
  • 9
    You stay locked up until the plot requires you again
    – Separatrix
    Commented Mar 2 at 22:14

1 Answer 1


In 2377, over a century after the events of Discovery, Voyager's EMH implies that in the Federation a life sentence is a life-long imprisonment, but he doesn't outright state it.

EMH: "[..] This is a Federation starship, not the Barge of the Dead."
Seven: "Would you prefer the captain released them?"
EMH: "Of course not. They are dangerous men."
Seven: "Execution ensures they won't pose a threat to anyone again."
EMH: "So would life sentences, the operative word being 'life'."

(emphasis added)

It is conceivable the EMH (and Seven for that matter) does not understand the details of the judicial system and assumes that's what a life sentence would be. On the other hand, he is also well versed in other subjects that do not pertain to his medical services.

  • EMH likely has access to that information. And "the operative word being "life"" means that the person is still alive rather than executed.
    – Spencer
    Commented Mar 11 at 15:24
  • @Spencer My point was that Seven argues that execution would result in the person ever posing a threat in the future. If a life sentence accomplishes exactly that, it would have to be for the entire life. Also, if the Doctor's point was rehabilitation (which it should have been, I think), he wouldn't have said anything about a life sentence.
    – bitmask
    Commented Mar 11 at 15:38
  • Although a 'life' sentence typically ensures that the person is no longer a threat by not releasing them from prison until they are not a threat and returning them to prison if this situation changes, rather than necessarily keeping them jailed for the remainder of their life
    – Valorum
    Commented Mar 11 at 16:24
  • Excellent spot there, bitmask. Even if it is unclear, it's the best we have so far.
    – user
    Commented Mar 12 at 14:42

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