Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The whole-life sentence and ‘playing to the gallery’

By Andrew Henley, PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant in Criminology

Home Secretary Theresa May has announced today that people who kill police officers should face a mandatory whole-life sentence without the possibility of parole. May’s rationale for imposing this sentence is that: "To attack and kill a police officer is to attack the fundamental basis of our society. We ask police officers to keep us safe by confronting and stopping violent criminals for us. We ask them to take risks so that we don't have to. That is why I am clear that life should mean life for anyone convicted of killing a police officer.” The chairman of the Police Federation has endorsed May’s proposal stating that: "There is no hierarchy when it comes to victims of murder, however police officers risk their lives on a daily basis confronting danger on behalf of others. Would-be offenders must know that they will receive the most severe penalty possible." Since the abolition of the death penalty in 1998 and its effective cessation in 1965 with the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act, the whole-life sentence has been the maximum penalty which the courts in this country can impose. Recipients of this severe punishment are usually those convicted of multiple counts of murder and the list of prisoners with a whole-life term reads like a roll call of the most horrific serial killings in British legal history.

At the heart of today’s political statements are firmly held beliefs in the notion of a ‘social contract’ between citizens and the state and an understanding of criminal behaviour as being based on some sort of rational calculation of the costs and benefits of committing an offence (“Would be offenders must know…”). The basis of a ‘social contract’ is formed on the idea that individuals can only be legitimately bound to a society if they have given their consent to the way in which it is arranged. This theory thus views as ‘crimes’ those transgressions which breach the social contract and which are therefore justifiably met by the state (on behalf of citizens) with some form of punishment as a deterrent from criminal behaviour. The idea that the murder of a police officer is to “attack the fundamental basis of our society” therefore derives from the notion that an attack on a police officer is the same thing as an attack on the state itself – the act of murder being elevated by the Home Secretary’s words from one of (severe) interpersonal harm into a virtual act of treason - a crime against the government, against Her Majesty no less!

Yet the populist stance of the Home Secretary fails to consider a number of critical factors which might suggest that ‘whole-life terms for cop killers’ are not such a sensible idea. Firstly, the imposition of such a sentence suggests that there is no worse crime possible in law. So the murder of one police officer gains equity with all the crimes of Ian Brady, Harold Shipman or Fred and Rosemary West respectively. Questions would then inevitably follow as to whether the murder of one police officer (however horrific) can really be equated to the murder of a suspected 215 people as in Shipman’s case. Without the reintroduction of the death penalty, there would simply be no higher sanction available to the courts to enable them to communicate the gravity of an offence – the discretion over minimum terms currently enables judges to do this.

Secondly, and contrary to the claims of the Police Federation chair, such a policy does unwittingly create a hierarchy of victimisation. If a whole-life term becomes mandatory for killing a police officer, why not for a nurse, or a school teacher, or a member of the armed forces or a child…or a vulnerable elderly person (I think you can see where this is going). Before long, demands would be made for whole-life sentences for all murders thus guaranteeing a further bloating of the prison population as lifers cease to be released on licence supervision. The notion that ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’ is also somewhat undermined if (to paraphrase Orwell) ‘some members of the public are deemed more equal than others’.

Thirdly, whole-terms might have the effect of not only extinguishing all hope of eventual release amongst those sentenced, but also removing any disincentives to further offending whilst in prison. This could have the effect of endangering prison staff and other inmates as lifers with nothing to lose see no additional consequences to settling prison disputes with violence. Currently, decisions of the parole board on whether or not to release a life-sentenced prisoner on licence must pass the ‘threat to life and limb’ test. Most lifers are fully aware that their success before a parole board is largely contingent on behaviour in prison and progress in the eyes of personal officers and prison psychologists.

Finally, May should consider the lessons of history from one of her Conservative predecessors as Home Secretary, when it comes to making pronouncements about suitable punishments. Home Secretaries once had the discretion to set the minimum terms of those sentenced to life. Following the murder of James Bulger and other cases politicians were stripped of this power and minimum terms (or ‘tariffs’) are now set by judges. Michael Howard (later accused of “institutionalised vengenance” and “playing to the gallery”) had increased the minimum terms of Bulger’s killers due to public pressure and tabloid campaigning. It would seem that appropriate sentencing is best not left in the hands of politicians alone and despite May’s rhetoric, any decisions on changes to mandatory sentences will (rightly) be considered by the Sentencing Guidelines Council.

The loss of any public servants in the line of duty is undoubtedly tragic and emotive, and cases such as the murder of PC Sharon Beshenivsky and more recently those of PC’s Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes are no exception. Yet the mobilisation of a harsher penal policy in their name is hardly a fitting legacy to their courage and dedication to duty. It is at best misguided and at worst a cynical act of populism intended to distract from significant cuts to the policing budget and the pay and conditions of officers.

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