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The number of prison inmates serving life terms climbed by 40 to a postwar high of 1,710 at the end of 2008, preliminary Justice Ministry data showed Saturday.

The number of lifers has been rising since around 1985 in line with a tendency toward harsher punishment. But that may drop under a new parole system introduced this month.

The ministry said life terms dipped below 1,000 in 1971 and sank to the 700s in the first half of the ’80s before rising again in the latter half and topping 1,000 in 1999, and 1,500 in 2006.

In 2008, 53 people began serving life terms after their sentences were finalized, compared with 89 in 2007, the ministry said. Five life inmates were paroled in 2008.

As of the end of 2008, 80 life inmates had been in prison for at least 30 years.

Under the Penal Code, people sentenced to life imprisonment are eligible for parole, which is granted by regional inmate rehabilitation panels. Inmates who have served at least 10 years can apply for parole, if their prison warden files the request.

Under a new system launched this month, inmates who have served 30 years will automatically become eligible to apply for parole without a warden’s request. The system is expected to decrease the number of life inmates because more are expected to be released after serving 30 years.

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