Life Sentences

There is often a lot of criticism of the life sentence system in the UK in that it doesn’t mean life.  The way in which these sentences are reported is not conducive to helping people to understand the sentence and that can damage public confidence in the system.  When a member of the public reads in the newspaper or hears about a life sentence on the TV or radio they will often hear phrases like “must serve 16 years”.  I’ve often heard people talk about how the latest big murder case to hit the news the accused is only handed a sentence of 18 years (as an example).

The problem does not lie with the Judges, in my view.  The sentencing judge spells out the sentence in quite explicit terms to the accused and to anyone else who happens to be in the court room at the time sentence is passed.  The following is an extract from a published sentencing statement by Lord Turnbull in the case of HM Advocate v William David McLean:

“I must stress though that this is not the sentence. Given your record you may well never be released at all. That question will be for the parole board. The sentence of the Court is that you should be imprisoned for life”.

Sentencing judges are required to set what is known as the “punishment part” of the sentence.  Essentially this means that this is the minimum period of time that the accused must serve in prison before being eligible for consideration for release on life licence.  In the above noted case this tariff was 17 years.

Is it the case that the prisoner is simply released after this period has expired? Well, the impression I get from people that I speak to is that the public believe that this is the case.  In a recent Freedom of Information request made to the Scottish Prison Service I discovered that in Scotland there are currently 191 life sentenced prisoners currently being detained in custody beyond the punishment part of their sentence.  None of these 191 “lifers” has been released by the parole board on licence since their punishment part had expired.  Clearly the Parole Board are of the view that these 191 prisoners still pose a danger to the public and are not suitable for release on licence.

Under an almost exactly similar Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Justice I was informed that on 17 November 2010 (the date the latest figures were available for) there were 7,656 life sentence prisoners in custody.  Of these, 2,874 had passed their minimum tariff date.  Again, recalled prisoners are excluded.  Once again, it would seem that the Parole Board is not very quick in releasing people serving a life sentence who have served their minimum tariff.  These 2,874 people clearly, in the eyes of the Parole Board, still represent a danger to the public.

There is the existence of whole life tariffs in which a offender knows from the day they are sentenced that they will never be released from prison and with those serving life sentences with minimum tariff periods there is the very real possibility that they will spend the rest of their life in prison.  I am a firm believer in that everyone deserves a second chance and that the vast majority of people can be rehabilitated (the ability to rehabilitate an offender largely comes down to the offenders willingness of the offender to be rehabilitated).  Not every person who commits a murder will forever more be a danger to the public.  Take, for instance, your man or woman who kills their partner after suffering years of domestic abuse.  Often such cases will be prosecuted as murder as the killing does not occur alongside the abuse they have been suffering.  These individuals do not deserve to spend the rest of their lives in prison, but as they have been convicted of murder the only sentence available to the Court is life imprisonment.

The justice system, especially sentencing, cannot be based upon a one size fits all approach.  The system does have its flaws, but let’s be clear on one thing, the minimum tariff imposed in court on a person sentenced to life is rarely what they serve before being released, and often it is much longer.  The Parole Board are clearly doing their job.