Should life sentences mean life?

Is David Cameron right to call for tougher prison sentencing?

Photo credit: Guillaume Paumier

Photo credit: Guillaume Paumier

David Cameron has said ‘life should mean life’ as he has now chosen to back the notion that the most serious offenders should be in prison for 100 years, in a system for similar to that of the United States. But does this mean a ‘denial of human rights’ as the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) have argued? Or does it show that if you break the law you also cannot expect it to save you?

A whole life sentence means that a person is not eligible for parole review or release, nor can they be released unless on the discretion of a judge on compassionate grounds such as they are terminally ill. The whole life sentence is reserved for offenders judged to be the most dangerous to society. The first whole life sentence, out of the 49 that have been handed out in Britain, was given to Arthur Hutchinson who murdered the parents and brother of a bride hours after her wedding in 1983 as well as the rape of her sister. Arthur was already wanted for rape and had spent 5 years in prison following the attempted murder of his brother in law. The judge said that for his sentence life should mean life, meaning there was no prospect of release.

But this has since been deemed as a breach of human rights, meaning that it raises serious questions of what prisons are really for. If one were to argue that they were a place of the reforming of dangerous citizens then as has been argued by the judges of this ruling that if one is “incarcerated without any prospect of release…there is the risk that he can never atone for his offence”. Instead, regardless of his behaviour and even if he had made exceptional progress towards rehabilitation, his punishment would remain the same.

Additionally, this raises issues surrounding sentences such as Ian Huntley’s, who is serving 40 years, as it can be argued that it is a denial of human rights to not allow a review for a life sentence then is it not the same to deny him this review. Yet, should good behaviour merely be expected rather than rewarded? Instead, should bad behaviour be the only thing that one focuses on when determining sentences?

It has always been argued by some that shorter sentences are less of a deterrence from criminal activity. But in this society, compassion may be seen to be the more important lesson to be learnt, particularly if one has shown that they have truly changed.

However, this has been an argument of huge contention. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling argued, “To be told this breaches human rights is absurd… What about the rights of the victims and their families?” Thereupon, it appears that having compassion for one seems to be ignoring the needs of the others. Many families are left to feel that the loss of a loved one has merely been ignored by the government. But equally one then has to question, will any sentence truly be enough to atone for what has happened in their lives?

But one has to remember that a period of 20 years is still a huge amount of time. To examine how much you have changed in the past 5 years seems astounding. Yet, as these sentences are for the people who are a ‘danger to society’ their cases have to be examined in a different way. Some may believe that someone who kills in cold blood is someone who cannot reform but the government has to ask, should those who have committed terrible deeds be shown forgiveness and given a second chance?

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