Thursday, September 17, 2009

Life Sentences

The world and his uncle have a view about Life sentences. Too long, too short, not enough given out... As with most things criminal, the absence of any knowledge doesn't hinder the masses warbling their illiterate opinion. Just to confuse your prejudices, this is a brief interjection of some facts.

There are several types of life sentence. There were just two until recently, but our incompetent leaders decided that some extra variety would sweeten the electoral pot. The two main categories are Mandatory and Discretionary. If you commit murder, then the life sentence is the only one that the judge can saddle you with. No exceptions. Hence the term 'mandatory. For juveniles, as I was, the outcome is the same but the sentence is called 'Detention at Her Majesty's Pleasure'. After my thirty years, she should be feeling pretty damn smug.

Discretionary life sentences were ones given at the discretion of the judge. A remarkable number of offences carry Life as the maximum sentence, and if you've committed a particularly wicked series of violent or sexual offences then you could look forward to receiving this sentence.

Two types of life sentence were just not good enough for our political masters. They took time out from stuffing their pockets with our loot to create automatic indefinite sentences. Where the Americans limited their insanity to 'three strikes'. Labour went one better - 'two strikes'. If you commit two offences of a violent type during your life, you were slung inside for an indefinite period. Crimes which previously saddled you with 2 or 3 years inside became transformed into open-ended nightmares. Strictly, these are not 'life' sentences but this is legal semantics - they were open-ended sentences, with no set release date. Pub-brawlers were hammered in droves.

Political boredom soon set in and three types of life sentence was seen to be too damn liberal. Another was created - Indefinite detention for Public Protection - 'IPP'. If you were convicted of an offence on the Government’s long, long list of crimes then it was assumed you posed a future danger to society and so received an IPP sentence. One strike and you’re out. The government assumed that only hundreds would suffer this; they were wrong. Prisons are clogged up with thousands of IPP's, who now choke the whole bureaucratic machine.

So, at this point we have 4 types of life sentence; although the Automatic sentences have really been superseded by the IPP sentence. Given all the above, it's no wonder that popular confusion abounds and weird beliefs sprout wings. Whereas you once needed to commit significant interpersonal violence to get such a sentence, now you can get one for a punch-up outside the pub. There are now over 9,000 people serving indefinite sentences, up from 3000-odd a decade ago. Most of these would previously have received a short fixed sentence.

It is a persistent myth that Life sentences were intended to mean being in prison for the rest of one’s life. This was never the case. Such sentences merely gave the Government the option of detaining you forever, an option that was never exercised until recently. At the moment, the average number of years served by Lifers who have been released is 16. Don't be misled by that number; the majority who have not been released serve far longer. Confusion arises because few outside (and a few inside) fail to understand that Life sentences are split into two parts. The first part is the Tariff, a length of time to be served in order to reflect retribution - the punishment period. The going rate for murder starts at 16 years.

Once the Tariff is reached, then the Parole Board begins reviewing your case. Only when they are persuaded that you pose no more than a minimal risk to life and limb do they order release. Thus some (many...) who seem to have a reasonable Tariff serve many years longer. My Tariff of 10 years was low, reflecting my age at the time, yet I have served nearly 30 years. The extra 20 has been on the basis of compliance - a nebulous concept to be explored another day but which seems in my case to equate to being an awkward bugger. Bear this information in mind when the media next report that some crim has received “only” 20 years for murder or whatever. This is the bare minimum and that person may never be judged fit for release. Worth remembering when the subject comes up at the next dinner party you go to; there is a genuine debate to be had, and that deserves sound information.


  1. Lots here, Ben, and all, typically, very cogent. When it comes to doing the math, the public's numeracy is subverted by fear and loathing - as you discovered in the Guardian the other day. Even pinkos go pallid then puce when crime and punishment are under discussion.

    This innumeracy extends also to money matters. YOIs, as you know, cost £100,000 per YO per year, and achieve a reoffending rate of 4 in 5 within 2 years. Good value for money? 60 per cent of all adults do the same, at a mere £65,000 pa. Makes Eton College look like a bargain.

    You'd think that this conspicuous waste would cause taxpayers to call time on it - all that money being spent to recycle human beings as angry social exiles with nothing to lose.

    But no. We are in the realm of unreason. And there are so many things they don't know.

    They don't know prisoners as individual people. This is why your blog is so important. It enables them to understand that people like you are people like them: individuals, not homogeneous members of a vitiated sub-species.

    They have no understanding of how a life sentence translates into the experience of actually serving it. In particular, they have no understanding that it is impossible for people of heart and spirit and intelligence to thrive in a context of such inhumanity and enraging stupidity.

    They think, for example, that murderers are people who suffer from a pathological compulsion to murder people. They don't understand that, having killed the person they wanted (or didn't mean) to kill, they don't actually want to murder anyone else - it's over. This impression is reinforced by the early release of so many sex offenders. These are the people who suffer from an often insuperable compulsion to reoffend. They are not simply the victims of bad choices (or a Friday night muddle). But everyone gets lumped together.

    I'm sorry, Ben, but the public, in its cowardice, wants to see offenders rendered inoffensive by being converted into broken-spirited penitents. The most admirable thing about you - and it's a truly remarkable testimony to the strength of your character - is that you will not fall for the Uncle Tom makeover.

    It's a fucking awful way to spend your life. Your integrity leaves you no choice but intractable defiance. Your stand is wholly admirable. I only hope that there is - to use what is possibly an odd word - some beauty in that.

  2. fascinating & illuminating.
    keep up the good work.
    thank you

  3. I have just come across this blog - mentioned on another one I read. I find it fascinating (thank you)and do not mind giving my humble opinions based on being retired and reading an awful lot on line. I also have an interest in the CJ system...

    I do not agree with Life Sentences and feel that the Courts should determine the length of sentence imposed. I also believe that any Murder Charge should be similar to that in the US. For example, a fight outside a Pub resulting in death, or a spontaneous act, should attract a lower sentence. (As far as I know the charge of Manslaughter can be a lottery although I do not know if this is accurate)? This is preferable to me than a tariff when length of time served is not done in "the open". I do not like this type of justice as one reads that unless you "comply" with courses that somehow make you safe, you will not be released.

    I can understand the thinking behind Indefinite Sentences for Public Protection as I must assume this was to cover the rare case of predatory paedophilia, dangerousness etc. I assumed that this would relate to 50 or so people a year. Now the system is using spurious tools to assess risk and putting information before Judges which they have to respond to. This sentence seems to be one of "I don't know" what to do and therefore the system will assess risk to the public over a period of time. Better safe than sorry. I think it is an infringement of rights when sentences are being determined being behind closed doors. What happens if your face does not fit? Is there not a system such as than which ensures people detained under the Mental Health System can have reviews undertaken by independant tribunals.

    Lest you think I am opposed to punishment - I most certainly am not. I do believe in openess. I also do not feel we are a safer sentence as a result of tougher sentencing policy as I see this as political manoevrings. After all - we are told that Crime is falling and yet we have a higher prison population. Too many long sentences and far too many public protection sentences as you say.

    Best wishes - Jane

  4. Before I say my piece, 'dangerousness' was invented by Dr Paul Bowden, who I would characterise as an imbecilic forensic shrink and a hired report-writer for the Crown Prosecution Service. Science, medicine, truth did not exist in his world. Really there was no use for them. Sorry, Jane.

    The life sentence or indeterminate sentence has to be challenged because of its proximity to torture. Lifers are kept in a state of uncertainty for up to ten, twenty, thirty years. The oppressive high-security environment in which they continue their limited lives destroys their social connections, alters the mind (probably permanently), weakens the body and causes the personality to go underground. After he has served his tariff and rehabilitation times, a lifer may be released into a changed, complex and competitive environment where, if he can conceal his past and conceal the vestiges of prison, he may obtain a low-paid job. If on the other hand he is honest, he will never find work. And in background, if he commits a further offence or causes his supervising probation officer to frown, he may be recalled to prison for an indefinite time.

    A humanely executed death sentence is probably less morally objectionable than the life sentence. Many lifers starting their sentences, if they knew what lay in store for them, would prefer death. Some indeed kill themselves. Until recently treason and piracy still attracted the death sentence, now the government has quite properly renounced it altogether. It is a shocking matter, an obscenity, that so many apparently ordinary offences should attract 'life'. Like the death sentence, the life sentence should not be used at all.

  5. Jane: Sentencing is a lottery. I got lifed up in Reading Crown Court. My barrister and solicitor thought I would have got 7 years in Winchester.

    The Parole Board re-sentence, in effect, behind closed doors. Not for what was done in the past but what they think an offender may do in the future.

  6. Here is an official account of the various indeterminate sentences from the Prison Service.

  7. Please sign a petition to help deal with some of the IPPs and pass it on to anyone with an IPP.

    good luck and keep up the blog.

  8. "sentencing is a lottery..." - er, but ending up being found guilty in court isn't, is it?

  9. Being found guilty in court is sometimes a lotter too! The sentencing should be consistent and fair!

  10. I dunno, strikes me as being a bit like complaining about the fine for parking on double yellow lines...

  11. Anon. Yup, murder and life sentences are just the same as parking offences. Thats just the level of thinking that has brought us to a disasterous criminal justice system.

  12. Ah well now, you would think twice about parking on a double yellow if the sentence was life, no? Certainly wouldn't be able to do it again... ;o)


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