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"Let Life mean Life"

Continuing on a topic (albeit not deliberately) that was raised in the comments here, David T at Harry's Place argues in favour of abolishing the mandatory life sentence for murder in the UK:

The mandatory life sentence for murder was substituted for the mandatory death penalty for murder in 1965 (although it was retained for piracy with violence and treason until 1998). One of the reasons for reform was that juries were unhappy about convicting (as murder, at least), killings that - while technically murder - did not deserve the death penalty. In other words, some juries in effect made a sentencing decision for the judge, by convicting of a lesser offence which would ensure that a proportional sentence was passed down by the judge. The problem with such a "solution", of course, is that it is a slightly dishonest, back-door way of achieving a result which accords with justice. Additionally, it results in a potentially unpredicable and capricious application of the law.

A similar situation has developed over the intervening forty years in relation to the mandatory life sentence. After the judge had passed the required life sentence on the defendant, the Home Secretary would step in and - advised by the trial judge - set the actual tariff which would be served. Generally speaking, that sentence was proportionate; usually it would be less than the life sentence handed down by the judge in court. Quite apart from the difficulty in reconciling to the rule of law, a system in which politicians pass specific sentences, politicians have found it difficult to set a proportionate tariff when the prisoner is particularly unpopular. Ultimately, of course, the European Convention significantly restricted the power of the Home Secretary to make his own judgement and returned sentencing power, substantially, to the judge who has actually tried the case and heard the live evidence.

A much simpler, and more honest solution is to follow the suggestion of the Law Commission and finally reform the law of murder, at least to the extent of abolishing the mandatory life sentence. When a person has committed a truely heinous offence, and a sentence of life imprisonment is passed on them, we need to know that life really will mean life. When an offence deserves a lesser sentence, let that sentence also be passed in open court.

The comments, presumably in the hope of heading misrepresentations off at the pass, offer some ready-made examples of exactly how the idea will be misrepresented:

For sure. Expect the usual moaning about out-of-touch judges champing at the bit to give community service to child-killers, but I think the public can see that this would be a very reasonable move (losing the mandatory sentence, not the community service).


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 6, 2004 5:04 PM.

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