Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Demeaning the Meaning of "Life"

As the most serious sentence available to the State, the Life sentence should carry some weight. It should, at least, be a signal that the crime committed is one of such repugnance to society that only the heaviest sentence will suffice.
And yet... a Life sentence is mandatory for murder. It can be -and often is - argued that murder is the most serious offence and so should properly attract the most serious sentence. Well, yes and no.
Not all murders are the same. There is the wife who kills her husband after years of being degraded. There is the householder who hits a burglar one too hard as he tries to flee. There is the parent who, with the best intention, ends the suffering of a severely disabled child.
There is the drunken bloke who has a scrap outside the pub, his victim falling to hit his head. There are the jealous people who, tormented by their perceptions of their spouse, lose all control.
There are also the child killers who stalk, kidnap, rape and kill. The serial killers who repeatedly inflict horror. There are the terrorists who place bombs on buses and trains and kill dozens.
All of these fall under the heading of "murder" and all, on the face of it, receive the sentence of Life. I argue that this demeans the very idea of a Life sentence, devalues it in the popular imagination and, in part, fosters a feeling that "sentences ought to be tougher".
In the popular imagination, Life sentences can mean a mere handful of years. To this day, it is widely believed that Lifers are released around 9 years. This hasn't been the case for decades.
The confusion and misperception lies in the "tariff". This is the minimum term the Court sets when issuing a Life sentence and leads to misleading headlines. Where the tabloids scream that some deviant 'only' received say, 5 years it takes careful reading to discern that the sentence was actually Life. The 5 years is the minimum; the convict may actually serve 10, 20, 40 years.
As things stand, bog-standard domestic murderers may receive a tariff of 16 years. Kill with a knife and you are up to 20 or 25. Terrorists attract tariffs of 40 or more years. Serial killers will never be released.
This is all perfectly clear to Lifers; tariff is everything and differentiates between the different types of murderer. Tariffs have only been around for the best part of 30 years and so that there remains such widespread public ignorance only highlights the malevolent, lazy and plain incompetent role of the media in failing to educate.
The question that has troubled some for many years - the House of Lords perpetually returns to the subject - is whether Life should be the mandatory sentence for murder?
If 'murder' covers such a broad range of crimes, from the bad to the truly horrific, then shouldn't the headline sentence also reflect this range? Would this not clarify the popular understanding?
A mercy killing might receive, say, 10 years. Domestic murders 15, murders in the course of a robbery 25... and so on (these numbers are merely illustrative of scale). Reserve the Life sentence for those whose crime may merit confinement for the whole of their lives and nothing less.
There are those who argue that "life should mean life" and under the present scope of "murder" then the mercy-killer would bear the same punishment as the deliberate mass murderer. This would be a great injustice, extending the number of those who have a whole-life tariff from 30 people to several thousand.
The Life sentence is a mess. Legally tortuous, broad in its application and misunderstood by many. Rather than slowly grinding out minor changes and clarifications, would it not be better to abandon it and begin again?


  1. The mandatory sentence for murder does create problems, but you fail to mention that the partial defenses - which reduces the offense to voluntary manslaughter and allows the judge discretion over the sentence.

    For example, the abused wife may well not reduce a life sentence and changes to the law being introduced this summer make that all the more likely.

    Of the examples you mention it's clearly mercy killings that are the greatest problem because there is no defense at all, except the juries potential reluctance to convict.

  2. I agree Ben, but was lead to belive life does mean life, in the way you can be re-called at any moment. I am not sure if it is a myth or not, but if a lifer was in a pub after release, and there was a fight, the lifer can be recalled there and then?

  3. any behaviour which "gives rise to cause for concern" is sufficient to recall a lifer to prison.