LAST month Boris Johnson announced his intention that in future ‘life will mean life’ for the killers of pre-school children.
This is the first time in over a quarter of a century that any government has announced its intention to introduce more severe sentencing for violent offenders. It is to be welcomed, even though the new policy will not be applied generally, but only to some of those who commit serious violent crimes.
It is a big step for our justice administration, steeped for so long in a culture of leniency towards offenders, but it is a very small step towards making the public safe from violent criminality.
If it is now thought right to imprison convicted child-killers for all of their lives, why was it not thought so before? Why is it not right to sentence violent criminals who kill older children and or adults in the same way? What is the difference?
Whilst I for one think the PM’s announcement should be applauded, paradoxically it shows how threadbare, even arbitrary, the establishment’s attitude towards imprisonment is. The last politician who understood the threat to the public from violent offenders and had the courage to promote tough sentencing was Michael Howard, who was Home Secretary from 1993 to 1997. He introduced a ‘2-strikes’ policy, whereby an automatic life sentence was imposed following a second conviction for a serious violent crime (short of murder) (1). It faced enormous resistance from the powerful anti-prison factions embedded in our establishment, and made it on to the statute book only after major amendments were included in the Bill. But within a short time new men arrived with new ideas, and Tony Blair’s government scrapped it (2).
This was not because it did not work. Indeed, when applied, it could not fail to be successful, because those sentenced in this way could not repeat their raping and maiming. It was changed to bring it back in line with the ideologically based anti-prison sentiments long held by our establishment. What they were determined to defend was their pro-criminal, anti-prison principles, not the safety of the public. What they ignored was the evidence which showed that long prison sentences are the only way to protect the public from violent criminals (3), and that those with previous histories of violent crime make up the majority of those convicted of murder (4, 5, 6).
The decision to lock up child-killers for the whole of their lives is a step in the right direction because it sweeps away the pretence of ‘rehabilitation’. The PM’s announcement means that should psychologists declare a killer ‘cured’ or ‘rehabilitated’ it will not be seen as a reason to release him, and he will stay in prison until he dies. This is a crucial shift in thinking, and though long overdue, it should not only be cheered, but applied to the sentencing of dangerously violent offenders generally.
Those who commit violent crimes, including murder, should be punished by imprisonment, not for them to be ‘rehabilitated’, or until they show remorse, but for what they have done. The length of their sentence should not be determined by whether or not they are seen to ‘improve’, or show ‘remorse’, or by the account they give to a parole board about what they say they have learned on a rehabilitation course. Such changes can be and are faked. Scores of violent prisoners have been assessed as ‘an acceptable risk to the public’ and released only to maim, rape and kill again. This invariably follows their attendance on an anger management course or other rehabilitation programme which the parole board wants to see on the prisoner’s CV.
This is despite the fact that the parole board knows, as does the rest of our justice elite, that all rehabilitation programmes have consistently failed to stop or interrupt the offending behaviour of the criminals concerned. In many cases the evidence shows that their offending has worsened after taking part in these programmes (7). Yet despite this long train of disastrous results, which go back at least four decades (and further for some types of supervision), they play no part in the thinking of those who work with offenders or those who devise sentencing policy. Probation staff and psychologists are allowed to go on pretending that they have the skills to change offenders’ behaviour, and the parole board continues to pretend to believe them.
Against this background, can we view the PM’s decision as a tacit admission that he, at least, understands that the concept of the state ‘rehabilitating’ violent (or other) criminals, is nonsense? Dare we believe that he has twigged that violent crime is not a crude reaction to poverty or other social or personal problem for which the offender needs help?
We can only hope that he has.
Even if we had the means (which we do not) to know for certain that a prisoner was ‘rehabilitated’ and would never commit another offence, he should not be released, but serve his sentence in full, even if this means staying in prison for the rest of his life. Violence is committed by those who have the propensity for it. They, like all of us, have free will, and can choose to indulge in it or not. Nothing compels them to be violent other than their decision to be so. Violence is a tool used by criminals to make money, impose their will, sexual or otherwise, on others, and as a source of enjoyment.
This is true of repeat violent offenders, not just those who kill pre-school children, but those who injure, rape and kill the young, the elderly, the strong, the weak, friends, strangers, workmates, the police, etc, etc. Increasing their tariff (as has also been mooted) to be served before parole can be considered, following the imposition of a so-called life sentence, is to stick with a wrong principle. Their release should not be arbitrarily decided upon by a parole committee. They should be given a fixed term of imprisonment so they know when they are to be released or not, as the case may be, and it should be of such a length that it protects the public at least as effectively as did the fear of the hangman’s noose.
If Boris Johnson’s announcement of more severe sentencing is not extended to all killers and repeat violent offenders, then for all we may welcome it, should we not also think of it as arbitrary and unjust – to child killers, who alone are singled out for the ultimate punishment?
(1) 1997 Criminal Sentences Act. This introduced Automatic Life Sentences for a second conviction of a listed dangerous violent or sex crime.
(2) Tony Blair’s New Labour government introduced the 2002 Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act that did away with the 1997 2-strikes legislation.
(3) United States Crime Rates 1960-2018. Compiled from Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reports. These statistics show that in the last 30 years the US crime rates for murder, and aggravated assault have been halved, and more than halved for robbery. They also show that the states with tough 3- or 2 -strike laws are those with the steepest declines in violence. For example, states such as California and Texas have halved their violent crime rates.
In Britain, longer prison sentences are associated with much reduced reconviction rates as follows: less than 12 months 60 per cent, 12 months to two years, 39 per cent; two to four years, 34 per cent; four to ten years, 25 per cent; ten years plus, 14 per cent.
Ministry of Justice Proven reoffending statistics quarterly: October 2013 to September 2014 (then choose Proven Reoffending Tables: October 2012 to September 2014, Table C2a)
(4) West, D, Murder Followed by Suicide: an inquiry carried out for the Institute of Criminology, Cambridge, Heinemann (1965) (A third of all murders followed by suicide.)
(5) The National Confidential. Inquiry into homicide followed by suicide by people with mental illness 2016 (Now only 4 per cent of murders followed by suicide.)
(6) Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2010/11: Supplementary Volume 2 to Crime in England and Wales 2010/11, tables 1e and 1.01. The proportion of killers formally diagnosed as insane (who rarely commit suicide after killing) has remained consistently low, and for over twenty years has stayed between 0.1 per cent and 0.9 per cent of all homicides.
(7) Worsening reconviction rates for offenders supervised in the community. In 1979 they were 41 per cent, measured over two years: Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Issue 34/86, Reconviction of those given Probation Orders, published 1986. Now over 50 per cent : Ministry of Justice Compendium of Reoffending Statistics and analysis, published 4 November 2010.
S. Merrington and S. Stanley, ‘What Works’: Revisiting the Evidence in England and Wales, Probation Journal, 5:1, pp. 7-20, 2004.
‘Jail thinking courses show you can’t teach an old lag new tricks.’ Times, 7 August 2003.
See also: ‘Prisoners fail to curb the inner man’, Times, 18 November 2003; ‘Release me from this paperwork’ Times, 5 August 2003.
Home Office Research Findings no 161 (2003): An Evaluation of Cognitive Behavioural Treatment for Prisoners.
January 5 2018: A researcher, quoting a 2017 government report, told the interviewer on the 1pm News on BBC Radio 4, that ‘the evidence makes it clear that sex offender programmes not only do not work, but in many cases the offending of those who attend them becomes worse’.