Whole Life Sentence

I have a particular personal disdain in this country for the misrepresentation that is allowed to fill the stories that the mainstream public are faced with.

The headlines in many papers could give the impression to any casual reader that something is not quite what it seems. Naturally, this is a tactic used by MP’s today to sway a baying public and appeal to those that suit their cause.

Recently, such an issue has been a problem in Scotland regarding the independence debate. This however, is not the point of my post today. Today, it is regarding the complete misrepresentation of ‘human rights’ and in particular the recent fracas over ‘whole life sentences’ in England & Wales.

The recent furore has stemmed from the decision made in Vinter & Others v U.K.

The three men in whose names the case was brought were all murderers who had been passed a ‘whole life sentence’ by the courts. The case was brought as a violation of Article 3, being regarded as inhumane and degrading treatment. At first view that may seem odd. The detail was that when given a whole life sentence a prisoner can only be released on compassionate grounds by the Sec. of State. There was no room for review in their sentences and therefore in my opinion, completely undermined the role of the prison service to ‘rehabilitate’ offenders, as with no prospect of release ;how can their be rehabilitation?

This argument was accepted by the Grand Chamber that to comply with Article 3 there must be a ‘POSSIBILITY’ of release. Now, please take clear note of that word : Possibility. Not ‘Guarantee’ as many media outlets would have you think.

The end story in all of this is that murderers serving whole life sentences are NOT going to be suddenly released onto the streets. Instead, the Government must simply introduce a review period before the question of release can be brought forth. That could be 10,15,20,25,30 years…whatever, although the court seemed to suggest 25 years with regular reviews thereafter being a suitable timescale. All that is required is a period of time when a suitable review can be made on the prisoner and their suitability to be re-entered into society. Naturally, the danger they pose to society would be at the top of this review agenda.

This decision, in my opinion is not particularly earth shattering. However, that is not the opinion of the Euro-sceptic Tory party who are using this ‘defeat’ to bolster their argument to distance the UK from the court in Strasbourg. Theresa May and Chris Grayling being the two at the forefront of such an ideal, even suggesting complete withdrawal from the convention. To be honest, even complete withdrawal would only half suffice to meet their goals as Articles 48 & 56 state that the UK must obey the decisions of the court and more importantly, even after withdrawal its obligations made before the break up must be honoured.

This whole argument, to be frank, is a storm in a teacup; being exploited to support the Tory argument of withdrawal from convention rights and leading to a probable withdrawal from many other European obligations(not to confuse the Court and the European union). The story that mass murderers can now be released is scaremongering tactics used to rouse the flames of anti-European politics that would suit the agenda of the Conservative party. It is manipulation of the people, giving inaccurate information to fund their cause and suggesting an infringement on good old-fashioned British Sovereignty.

It is also important to remember that this issue is not new, nor is it particular to the UK as some cabinet members would have you believe. This decision stems from Kafkaris v Cyprus where it was decided that prisoners had the right to justification on their sentences being continued after a certain length of time. Taking this decision along with the decision in James,Wells and Lee v UK the decision in this recent case has simply reiterated both previous decisions. The James case showed a lead towards prisons not only being a place of punishment, but to rehabilitation of offenders.

What is also surprising is the sudden shock at the decision when the Court of Appeal in England and Wales (where this decision actually matters, Scotland does not have the whole life tariff) had already suggested that the current legislation governing release on compassionate grounds (Crimes (Sentences) Act 1997 S.30) was too narrow to be compatible with Article 3.

My personal suggestion to the Government would be to repeal the Criminal Justice Act 2003 S.4(1) Sch. 21. This would then do away with whole life sentences altogether. This could then be replaced with clearer legislation that would still allow sentences that cover the whole life of a prisoner but allowing consistent review of their progress through various time constraints without allowing loopholes for any early release. I am afraid the old term my granny would use of ‘locked up and throw away the key’ is not quite conducive with the modern belief that prisons are there not only to punish but to also rehabilitate offenders. Another suggestion would be to limit the length of a ‘whole life sentence’ like is done in many other countries. Surely a sentence of 60 years would have the same effect, without compromising the Articles. Then again, maybe that would not suit the political agenda behind such public outrage at a rather straight forward and completely expected judgement.

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