Wednesday, July 10, 2013

For the worst killers, Life should mean life

I can recall a time when the abolition of capital punishment was much more recent in Britain and before the great majority of the "political class" in this country had accepted that it was permanent.

Back then a Conservative with parliamentary ambitions who came out against the death penalty was taking a great risk with his or her chances of becoming an MP. Although there were plenty of brave people with the courage of their convictions who did just that.

But almost every politician of whatever party who supported the abolition of capital punishment or opposed its' return at the time that was seen as a serious possibility defended this policy to the public - a majority of whom have always supported the death penalty - by making the following three promises.

First that there must  be very serious punishment for those who deprived others of their lives, and second that these killers who were clearly a serious danger to the public should be locked away to protect the public for as long as they remained so. And third, those convicted of the worst acts of murder should be sentenced to life imprisonment and "Life should mean life."

This was not a case of politicians trying to over-ride Britain's own judiciary. "Whole life tariffs" have only ever been imposed in the most serious and atrocious cases, and generally with the trial judge, who has had to listen in more detail to the harm done by these killers than most of the politicians and journalists who commented on their cases making clear that he or she thought it fair and proportionate.

One of the shorter and more memorable examples was the comment by the trial judge in the case of Rose West, Mr Justice Mantell, who on sentencing her to life imprisonment added

 "If attention is paid to what I think, you will never be released."

The European Court of Human Rights - which, by the way, is nothing to do with the European Union -  has supported a case brought against Britain by three convicted murderers who argued that under human rights laws their cases should be reviewed. The court ruled that even the worst murderers should be entitled to apply for a review of their cases.

This is a long way short of saying that they should be released, but has still caused understandable upset.

I think that Jonathan Freedland in, of all places, the Guardian, got it right here when he argued against upsetting the tacit bargain which the political establishment had made with the majority: that instead of killing monsters like Ian Brady, society would put them and keep them behind bars for life.


Tim said...

People who commit murder should be executed.

Jim said...

They are saying that the case should be open for review (not release) after 25 years. However this could be Worked around. See if someone kills two people then give them 2 life sentences, thus they can apply to have the first one reviewed after 25 years, even if they manage to end the first life sentence they still have a second life sentence to serve in full, so it will be a further 25 years before they can apply for review.

Chris Whiteside said...

The opinion polls suggest that a majority of the public are with Tim on this.

I'm not, but I see this issue as one with strong moral arguments on both sides and that both should be treated with respect.

Consequently if parliament and the political class are going to stick to their own principles and not have the death penalty, they have an obligation to take account of the views of the majority.

Which means that murder has to attract a serious penalty and those who are convicted of this crime should not be given a chance to kill a second time.

As Jonathan Freedland pointed out in the Guardian, a majority of people, like Tim, think that sentencing murderers to life in prison is already a concession.

While the most dangerous killers are kept permanently locked away, that majority appear to be prepared to tacitly accept the bargain, but if policy got too far out of line with the public, this would cease to be the case, and voters would begin to exert strong pressure on MPs and candidates to restore the death penalty.

If people like Ian Brady, Peter Sutcliffe, Ian Huntley, Rose West, or Mark Bridger started getting released from prison, the public would be outraged - not, I have to say, entirely without reason - and a popular campaign to bring back hanging would be likely to come into being.

If, as I suspect is the case, the likes of those five people would be most unlikely to be released even if their cases are reviewed, it would be an additional cruelty, as well as a waste of money, to hold out the possibility of release through such a review.

Jim said...

like yourself Chris I am not in favour of the death penalty. To me its too final, thus no mis carriage of justice can ever be rectified. The case of Derick Bentley will for ever haunt that idea.

However i do believe in the chain gang and things like that, I think prisoners should be made to work to improve things for everyone else. They could spend the day filling in pot holes on our roads. After all the government seem to be unable despite the amount of money I am forced to spend on road taxing two cars.