Casting light on life sentences

Old Bailey, from photo by Adam Dimmick, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licenceThere is nothing like the comment section of a news site to demonstrate public ignorance of the facts behind a particular story. However, the situation isn’t helped when the news outlets themselves use confusing or inaccurate terms in their articles, or are simply sloppy with their reporting. A good example this week is the discussion of life prison sentences.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that whole-life prison sentences without any possibility of review are a breach of prisoners’ human rights. It is clear that the public generally do not understand what a life sentence is, and the BBC further muddied the water in its reporting by claiming, for example, that murderer Ian McLoughlin “was given a 40-year sentence in October” after the ECHR ruling made judges wary of imposing a whole-life tariff. The BBC’s wording is incorrect. McLoughlin was sentenced to life in prison, as is mandatory for anyone found guilty of murder. The difference is that the judge set a 40-year minimum tariff as opposed to a whole-life tariff. More on this in a moment.

Unfortunately, in the comments section both on the BBC and elsewhere, the public demonstrates its collective ignorance with claims such as that murderers are released after serving half their “sentence”, that they are released early, that dangerous people are released back onto the street and so on. Inevitably, some of them conclude that prison sentences aren’t good enough, and that we should go back to having the death penalty.

How do prison sentences actually work? I’m no lawyer, but this is my understanding of the situation in England and Wales hopefully expressed simply enough for anyone to understand. When someone receives a ordinary prison sentence for a crime, let’s say two years’ imprisonment for a robbery, they are eligible for release after they have served half of that sentence in prison. They then serve the remainder of that sentence on licence. If they breach the terms of their licence, maybe by going to places they are banned from or associating with certain people, or if they commit further crimes, they can be recalled immediately to prison.

When someone is sentenced to life imprisonment, there is clearly no halfway point to the sentence. Instead, the trial judge sets a minimum term which the convict must spend behind bars, which is determined by consideration of aggravating and mitigating factors. Only after this minimum period has expired can the prisoner be considered for parole. Note that even then it is far from automatic. The Parole Board review each case carefully, and the prisoner will only be released if they have shown remorse and are not considered a danger to the public. They may still be kept inside for much longer than the minimum term, maybe for their whole life – after all, it is a life sentence. If the prisoner is eventually released, it is on life licence. They would be in contact with the probation service for the rest of their life, and could be sent straight back to prison for any sort of transgression.

Ironically, the controversial whole-life tariff was only introduced in its present form as a result of a previous ECHR ruling. In the past, the Home Secretary decided the minimum term to be served by those sentenced to life. The ECHR ruled that it was a breach of human rights to have a politician decide a criminal’s sentence. Responsibility for minimum terms was passed to judges, and the new guidelines included the provision for whole-life tariffs.

What should be done in response to the ECHR’s latest ruling? Perhaps we should consider what the purpose of a whole-life tariff is. I doubt it is really a deterrent, as the types of murders where it applies are the most extreme and depraved. The sort of people who commit such crimes are clearly not right in the head and are unlikely to be thinking about sentences they might receive at the time they carry them out. As for public protection, as explained above, murderers aren’t released if they present a danger, irrespective of their minimum term. The real reason for such sentences is to satisfy the public, who demand tough sentences for serious crimes. I don’t think introducing American-style sentences of 100s of years is a good idea. The US also has a reputation for letting its prisoners out on parole after a short period of time compared to the original sentence – indeed, I expect many of the British public’s ideas about early release are influenced by American films and dramas. Introducing such sentences here won’t satisfy the public, and besides, it just isn’t the British way of going about things.

I believe they could scrap the whole-life tariff, and it wouldn’t make any difference to any prisoners. Those guilty of the worst crimes would still spend the rest of their lives behind bars becasue they won’t show remorse and will be considered dangerous. However, there would be a process in place so that prisoners’ cases were reviewed by the Parole Board, which would satisfy the human rights lawyers. To ensure the public are still satisfied with life sentences, the media need to play their part and report them properly. The fact that it’s a life sentence should be emphasised, and the minimum terms most definitely not described as the “sentence”. Perhaps the terminology should be changed officially, and “minimum terms” renamed “initial sentence review date” or similar. It would then be clear that a criminal was being sent to prison for life, and that his sentence wouldn’t be reviewed for 40 years. The media could also publicise the parole hearing much more. If it were explained that someone who had committed a heinous crime had spent 40 years in prison and had now been denied parole, and that the next review date would be in 10 years’ time, the public would possibly have more faith in the justice system, and would certainly have a better understanding of it.

One response to “Casting light on life sentences”

  1. John

    Jonathan,

    An interesting analysis. The public seem to have very little faith in the processes surrounding community sentencing and parole. Parole Boards in particular have a reputation for being a soft touch and therefore the public would be unlikely to accept that they are fit for this additional purpose.

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