Photo: Press Association
Possibly the “hot topic” of the year (thus far, we’re only on day 3) is David Cameron’s idea that those convicted and sentenced in the UK should face US-style sentencing. A “life sentence”, Cameron argues, should mean life: “There are some people who commit such dreadful crimes that they should be sent to prison and life should mean life.”
No possibility of rehabilitation then Cameron?
It’s a proposal that has been the subject of much debate; The Guardian published an article online just 27 hours ago and has already received in excess of 1,500 comments. Dirk van Zyl Smit, also writing for The Guardian, summed-up the proposal as meaning “that we write them [prisoners] off permanently. It means that we deny that with the passage of time they may change for the better; or that we may change our assessment of their crimes.”
Of course, what Cameron is effectively trying to do is to circumvent the European Court of Human Rights ban on whole-life sentences (Vinter v UK, 2003). In the case of Vinter, Judge Power-Forde of the Republic of Ireland summed-up the reasons why it was fundamentally unacceptable for the UK to continue to impose whole-life tariffs:
“Hope is an important and constitutive aspect of the human person. Those who commit the most abhorrent and egregious of acts and who inflict untold suffering upon others, nevertheless retain their fundamental humanity and carry within themselves the capacity to change. Long and deserved though their prison sentences may be, they retain the right to hope that, someday, they may have atoned for the wrongs which they have committed … To deny them the experience of hope would be to deny a fundamental aspect of their humanity and, to do that, would be degrading.”
Surely this is exactly what 100 year sentences will achieve; a completer denial of any hope, whatsoever? By sentencing someone to 100 years in prison are we not effectively locking them up and throwing away the key? Denying a human being access to any rehabilitative support and sending a message that some offenders are too evil to even be considered worthy to ever be reformed or to ever leave the confines of a prison cell?
Let’s not forget that the ECHR is not advocating an automatic release of violent offenders after a set period of time. What is required by Vinter is simply a review of each prisoner, at set periods throughout their detention. This review should take place after no more than 25 years of incarceration, but it certainly does not guarantee release. What is also required, throughout the period of incarceration, is the opportunity for rehabilitation.
There are currently 49 prisoners in England and Wales serving whole-life sentences. Many are bringing appeals against sentence following the Vinter judgment.
The US already sentences many offenders to lengthy terms of imprisonment, when it doesn’t kill them, of course. Ariel Castro, found guilty of kidnapping three women in the US state of Ohio, was sentenced in 2013 to 1,000 years in jail. He committed suicide later that same year. Cameron is effectively promoting a similar regime in the UK. But where does it end? Are we to bring back the gallows, Mr Cameron?