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The absurd lottery of parole


In 1973, 22-year-old David McGreavy killed three young children in their home in Worcester. He had been babysitting at the request of their mother, Elsie Urry.

The court at his trial heard that nine-month-old Samantha had annoyed him because she would not stop crying, and he beat her to death. Her skull was found to have multiple fractures. He went on to strangle her brother, four-year-old Paul Ralph, and to cut the throat of her sister, two-year-old Dawn. He mutilated their bodies with a pickaxe before impaling them on the spikes of a neighbour’s fence.

His trial was short because he pleaded guilty to the murders. McGreavy was not insane – there was no plea of diminished responsibility. He knew what he was doing and said he killed the children because one of them would not stop crying.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment (a ritual lie regularly intoned by judges in British courts) with a minimum tariff of 20 years. In 2007 his first parole request was refused, on ‘psychiatric’ grounds. In 2013 his bid to be moved to an open jail, an important step in the parole application process, failed. In 2016 he was again turned down.

Then in November of 2018, after McGreavy had been in jail for 45 years, the Parole Board announced they were going to release him. They said that ‘after considering all the circumstances’ they were satisfied that McGreavy was ‘suitable for release’. There is in this statement no evidence of diminished confidence in their ability to assess accurately a prisoner’s state of mind, despite the scores of prisoners they have released in the past who have gone on to kill, maim and rape again. Between 1998 and 2014, 4,905 further serious offences (or 26 per month) were committed by offenders on the probation service’s books.* Many of these were on parole. Despite these alarming figures, the Parole Board has, in the past, been forced to admit that these are probably underestimates.

The Parole Board (or anyone else) have no special skills to enable them to know that a prisoner is truly reformed, and genuinely remorseful. They would need god-like abilities to do so. All they can do is guess, and they often get it wrong. Prisoners can and do fake their ‘rehabilitation’. A staff member was told by an inmate that if you were given a stiff sentence, what you did was to behave badly, and then ‘improve’. This increased the chances of release.

But even if the Parole Board had the supernatural means to know for certain that a criminal would never commit another crime, this should not trigger his release. He should be sentenced for what he has done. The purpose of a sentence of imprisonment should be to mark society’s total rejection of the criminal’s behaviour. The worse the crime, the more severe the rejection and therefore the punishment.

The board’s report on McGreavy said that ‘he had developed self-control, and a considerable understanding of the cause of his problems’; that he had ‘learnt to remain calm in stressful situations’. Let’s put aside for a moment the absurdity of the assumption that anyone can know this. He was jailed not to learn self-control, nor to understand his problems and remain calm. These did not appear on the charge sheet. He was jailed because he had committed three horrific murders.

And if, for the Parole Board, the killing of three young children does not warrant a whole-life term, how many killings would? And if there is no limit to the brutality they can accept, does this not make them brutes also?

But parole is not just absurd. To commit prisoners, no matter what they have done, to prolonged periods of uncertainty with regard to their release, is cruel. Further, for this decision to be made by a committee is also arbitrary, and therefore is against all that British justice stands for. Prisoners need to know from the moment their sentence starts when they will be released (as do their victims), or informed, as McGreavy should have been, that his crimes are so far beyond the pale that they will die in prison.

By not doing so, the Parole Board has submitted the murdered children’s mother, and the rest of the public, to the ultimate injustice, and underlined yet again why it should be abolished.

*Figures compiled from: Home Office, Probation Statistics England and Wales 2002, published January 2004; HO Bulletin 15/04 ‘Offender Management Caseload Statistics 2003, published December 2004; Ministry of Justice, 2012 Compendium of reoffending statistics and analysis; Ministry of Justice, Proven reoffending Statistics, Quarterly Bulletin, January to December 2012, England and Wales; Annex B: Serious Further Offences, Reoffending Data 2013/14.

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David Fraser
David Fraser
David Fraser is the author of Licence to Kill, Britain’s Surrender to Violence. He is a former senior probation officer and criminal intelligence analyst with the National Criminal Intelligence Service (now the National Crime Agency).

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