For at least five decades violent crime and homicide in Britain has spiralled. It is now one of the most criminally violent countries in Europe.
This escalation has been paralleled by an increase in lenient sentencing, even for offences of violence. Almost all sentences are subject to automatic 50 per cent remission. Most are of short duration and the actual time served by those convicted of violence is, on average, less than a year. The mandatory sentence for murder is a sentence of ‘life’ imprisonment. But this is a formalised lie ritually intoned by judges when sentencing convicted killers, as most are released by the parole board at some point. A life sentence now means on average, no more than 16 years, and one in nine murderers is freed after serving fewer than ten years in jail. A review of 183 second killers (convicted murderers released from their first sentence who go on to kill again) found only 11 per cent of them were given a whole-life tariff, with the majority serving no more than 16 years for their second murder. The majority convicted of violent crime or homicide have been allowed to kill, maim and rape again because of previous lenient sentencing. Half of all those sentenced for violence have seven or more previous convictions and nearly a third have 15 or more.
In 1973 Clive Hayes, a serial offender, was imprisoned for raping two schoolgirls aged 14 and 15. Despite the gravity of this offence, for which a life sentence would not have been unjust, he was sentenced to just three years’ imprisonment. In 1975, within three weeks of his release, he dragged another 15-year-old girl from the street into his car. He drove to his bedsit where he tied her up and raped her at knifepoint. He was traced, arrested and this time the court imprisoned him ‘for life’, (the ritualised lie again). In 1995, using the phoney language he had learnt on the probation programme, he told the parole board what he knew they wanted to hear when he said that he had offended because of his ‘distorted thinking’, adding: ‘But this is all in the past because I have now been taught to think properly.’ They released him saying he was an acceptable risk to the public (but would the public agree?).
Because of their relatively wealthy and protected lifestyles, Hayes presented no risk to the parole board members. Certainly, Hayes did not kill any one of them, but he did kill, some years after gaining his freedom, a young Polish care worker living in relatively poor conditions in a bedsit on the outskirts of Bristol. Hayes’s behaviour prior to killing her followed almost the same pattern demonstrated before his previous crimes when he abducted and raped the three teenage girls.
In 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. Three months later, armed with a gun and a knife, he attacked and robbed John Monckton and his wife in their Chelsea home. Mr Monckton died from his wounds, but his wife, though terribly injured, survived.
Mr Monckton’s death was a direct result of the concern shown for his attacker by the justice system that failed to lock him up for all or most of his active life, following conviction for his previous violent offence.
These are but a tiny sample of the hundreds killed and thousands injured by violent criminals every year, courtesy of the government’s lenient sentencing policies. The way to ensure that men such as Hayes and Hanson do not get a further chance to exercise their violence is for us to adopt a ‘two-strike’ sentencing system. This would mean the imposition of a whole-life term of imprisonment following a second conviction for a serious violent crime, identified on a list of qualifying ‘strike’ offences legislated for by parliament. Its tough punishments would be aimed not at the first-time offender of previous good character who killed or injured someone – unless circumstances suggested otherwise – but at repeat, violent and dangerous offenders, for whom violent crime has become a habit or even a way of life.
There is nothing wrong per se with violent criminals spending most or perhaps all their lives behind bars, provided that they are convicted after a fair trial, which has allowed them to present the most rigorous defence possible. Equally, we should suffer no inhibitions about running a prison system without parole. There is no good reason to parole any offender. The idea that prisoners need parole because otherwise they would find imprisonment impossible to bear, or would cause trouble without it, is an invention. It is also an implied blackmail which we must resist. Parole should be seen not as a reward for good behaviour, but a reward for bad behaviour, and therefore abolished. Judging a prisoner is safe to release because he has ‘reformed’ or shows ‘remorse’ should be seen as wrong in principle and absurd, so the Parole Board would be abolished. Offenders should be sentenced for what they have done, and serve it to the full. There must always be room for mercy although the bar for this must be high. But in this revamped sentencing system there would be no room for practices which allowed criminals to run free, or which undermined legislation aimed at protecting the public. Therefore the Crown Prosecution Service, the Guidelines Council and the custom of discounting sentences would also be abolished.
Two- and three-strike systems have been highly successful in New Zealand and also the US, where violent crime and homicide rates have been significantly reduced, lessening the need for prison building. There is no reason to think that we would not enjoy similar results.