OVER recent months, Boris Johnson has made three separate announcements about sentences for some violent crimes.
In September 2019, he stated that the killers of pre-school children will be sentenced to whole-life jail terms.
That same month, it was announced that violent offenders (and more recently, terrorists) will be automatically released at the two-thirds point of their sentence, rather than halfway, as happens now.
On January 14, 2020, he promised that county lines drugs gangs will be ‘totally wound up’, saying they are ‘killing young kids’.
But are these announcements a real move away from the previous 50 years of lenient sentencing? I suspect they may be just window dressing.
If it is right to lock up the killers of pre-school age children for life, why not those who murder school-age children, or young people, or adults? While it is good news that Boris wants to sweep away ‘county lines’ gangs, why not also target all violent criminals with sentences which stop them in their tracks?
As welcome as they are, the Prime Minister’s stated intentions fail to address the central problem of our justice system, namely the excessively lenient sentences handed down to violent criminals generally.
As a result, they come nowhere near deterring the offender, or protecting the public. The average prison term for violent crimes is 23 months and the time servedis far less (1). Even when murderers are sent to prison ‘for life’, hundreds have been released to strike again (2).
Keeping violent men (and women) in prison for an extra few weeks or months is pointless. It will not deter them from future offending.
Even sentences thought to be substantial fail to match the motivation of the offender. In April 1998, Damien Hanson, a violent career criminal, was convicted of attempted murder while robbing a man of his Rolex watch and attacking him with a machete. He was released on licence after serving just seven years of a 12-year sentence.
In November 2004, armed with a gun and a knife, he and another criminal, Elliot White – also subject to supervision –
tricked their way into the home of a wealthy businessman, John Monckton, to rob him. They killed him and almost killed his wife in a bloody struggle witnessed by their nine-year-old daughter (3).
To believe that seven years, (or even 12, if it were served in full), would act as a deterrent was a denial of the seriousness of the crime and the depth of Hanson’s violent nature.
In 1995, Roy Whiting was given four yearsfor abducting and sexually assaulting a nine-year-old girl (4). He served two and a half years. In 2000, he abducted and killed eight-year-old Sarah Payne.
In May 2018, Sudesh Amman was convicted of 13 terrorist offences, involving the possession and dissemination of terrorist information. In effect, he intended to kill British people wherever and whenever he could and a prison term of at least 25 years would not have been unjust. He was given three years. In prison, Amman told fellow inmates he wanted to murder an MP. He was given automatic release at the halfway stage and ten days later, on February 2, he stabbed two people in a busy shopping street in Streatham.
These examples are not unusual. Thousands of the most serious crimes such a murder, rape, grievous bodily harm, and kidnapping are committed by criminals freed either under licence following their early release, or given a non-custodial sentence to be supervised by the probation service (5). Surely no civilised society should tolerate this?
Reform is possible. In America, there is compelling evidence that the threat of draconian sentences can reduce homicide and violent crime. Many US states have halved their violent crime rate since introducing ‘three-strikes’ sentencing, which means a long jail term following a third conviction.
But to reach this point, our justice elites need to accept that violence committed by sane individuals is not some sort of crude response to poverty, or driven by social or personal problems. If so, we would have solved the problem long ago, given the thousands of man-hours spent by probation officers, social workers, psychologists and others to help, guide and counsel offenders.
All attempts to ‘rehabilitate’ criminals have failed, because there is nothing about them which is broken and needs mending, nothing ‘lost’ which they need help to recover.
Criminals have gone out of their way to make it clear that their violence cannot be ‘programmed’ out of them, as if it were some kind of neurotic tic. They are violent because they want to be. It is a tool of their trade which gets them what they want. They use it to impose their will; for financial and/or sexual gratification and sometimes just for the pleasure it gives them to hurt others.
If anything needs rehabilitation, it is the state’s response to repeat violence from criminals who know exactly what they are doing, and who are allowed to roam free.
Limiting whole-life terms to the killers of pre-school age children smacks of headline-grabbing sentimentality. Ensuring that all repeat violent criminals go to prison for most, or all, of their lives would send a clear message to the public that the Government is, at last, serious about protecting them, and to criminals that the era of pretend sentencing is over.
Faced with such a threat, the evidence shows the majority of violent criminals would give up, our violent crime rate would drop, and we would probably need fewer prison places, not more.
But this is not the message that Boris is giving. Perhaps, because like many politicians, he is afraid of being called bad names by the Guardianistas, who would label him heartless, authoritarian, vengeful and cruel.
(1a) Criminal Justice Statistics Quarterly, September 2015, Overview Tables, Page Q1.3
(1b) GOV.UK Ministry of Justice: press Release 13 August 2015. Average sentence for sex offences in England and Wales is 5 years.
(2) Data compiled from Home Office bulletins and ‘Homicide Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence; Crime in England and Wales Supplementary Volumes’, for years 1900–2011 as well as newspaper reports for the same period.
2012-2014 data: Office for National Statistics, Crime Statistics, Focus on Violent Crime and Sex Offences 2013/14
‘Scores of life-term prisoners freed to kill again’: Daily Telegraph, 4 July 2015.
(3) ‘Freed robber obsessed with the rich guilty of stabbing financier to death’: Guardian, 16 December 2005.
HM Inspectorate of Probation Serious Further Offence review: Damien Hanson and Elliot White, 2006.
(4) The murder of Sarah Payne by Roy Whiting.
(5) Data compiled from criminal justice statistics (see Licence to Kill, Britain’s Surrender to Violence, page 121 for list of government sources).
(6) Tough for Whom? Assessing the Impact of Discretion on California’s Three Strikes Law. Jennifer Walsh, PhD
United States Crime Rates 1960-2015. Compiled from Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reports
U.S. Department of Justice, FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics site
610 Correctional Populations in the United States 2014, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics
611 Submission to the Sentencing and Parole Reform Bill Law and Order Committee, Parliament Buildings, Wellington, New Zealand (by Professor J Walsh)
then choose ‘full text’, which goes here.
612 BBC Radio World News, 26th May, 2010
613 United States Crime Rates 1960-2015. Compiled from Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reports