Prime Minister backs plans for US-style sentencing

Prime Minister backs plans for US-style sentencing


David Cameron has dismissed fears that the Government is pumping up a housing bubble.

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?

More on life sentences can be found here, here, here, herehere and here.

Sara is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers practising in crime.


  1. I believe the longest determinate sentence ever passed in the USA was 3,000 years.

    How about consecutive life sentences without parole?

    Mr Cameron and Ms May must really, really like like losing in Strasbourg.

  2. Mr Cameron is much more concerned about losing the next general election than being found to have infringed the ECHR yet again (as indeed were his predecessors before him). And Mrs May still dreams of replacing him as party leader (once the Tories have imploded and fallen into the hole opened up by UKIP).

  3. Do you think the Vinter problem could be resolved by reverting to the pre-2003 system, but with the High Court (or CACD) rather than Home Secretary exercising the decision?

    • Yes, it seems to me that that solves the problem entirely! Very simple and I can’t see how anyone could actually argue that that is not a sensible resolution.

  4. Senator John Randolph once began a speech with the words

    “Mr President of the Senate, and would-be President of the United States, which God in His infinite mercy avert . . .”

    and after reading your post, polruan, I know how he felt.

  5. “This review should take place after no more than 25 years of incarceration”

    Is that in the ECtHR’s judgment in Vintner? If so, not only are whole-life tariffs wrong, but also tariffs longer than 25 years, surely?

    This is not a subject in which I have taken interest in the past, but I can see no purpose at all in whole-life tariffs anyway, which is the equivalent of the American sentence of “life without possibility of parole”. I read many horrifying stories of past murders such that I find it difficult to imagine that the convicted offenders will EVER be let out on licence. But that is no reason to rule out the possibility that any one individual might become a reformed character in decades to come. Who can foresee what might be?

    As I understand it (as an ignorant a lay person), “life” DOES mean “life” already. A lifer out on licence can be recalled to serve more time inside right up until the day he dies, if he abuses the licence. If it were anticipated he would abuse the licence, a lifer won’t be paroled in the first place, even if he has served two or three times his tariff before applying for parole.

    In short, what the heck is all the fuss about?

    And why not avoid all these costly appeals, by giving a statutory right to lifers to apply for parole after a certain period, even if they have not completed their tariffs under lock and key prior to this?

  6. IMHO a better solution for certain crimes would be the death sentence. 39 US states agree with me, and so do numerous public opinion surveys in the UK. Not only would it be more economic, but it would be kinder than the living death of life incarceration.

  7. There are many on the Tory right who would not only agree with you but in fact see the reintroduction of the death penalty as a “way out” of the EU: even if it is by expulsion, seeming to prefer international opprobrium to constructive cooperation with our European neighbours.