[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Saturday, 4 December 2004, 02:40 GMT
Can society justify life-long imprisonment?
By Joe Boyle
BBC News

A former US marine became the UK's 25th prisoner facing a life in prison with no possibility of being released when he was jailed on Thursday.

The list of 25 includes some of Britain's most notorious criminals - Rose West, Ian Brady and Dennis Nilsen among them.

A judge's gavel
Victims' groups are calling for wider use of the whole-life tariff
But can society really say a criminal will never be rehabilitated? Is such a sentence ever really justified?

Sentencing murderer David Bieber to life imprisonment, Mr Justice Moses said he showed "no remorse or understanding of the brutality" of his crime.

The judge added that Bieber's crime "was so grave that I must order that the early release provisions shall not apply and you must spend the rest of your life in prison".

Murder carries a mandatory life sentence. But the judge decides on a tariff - the minimum amount of time the killer must spend in jail.

Bieber, who shot and killed a police officer as he begged for his life, was given a whole-life tariff making it almost certain he will spend the rest of his life in jail.

Victim support groups agree with the judge's sentence whole-heartedly.

From time to time you come across a person who is intact, but the thing that makes their heart sing is hurting people
Paul Britton
Forensic psychologist
Norman Brennan, director of Victims Against Crime, says people who kill policeman should never be freed from jail.

"Murder is the most heinous crime on our statute books," he says.

"When these people are released they are afforded privileges their victims will never have.

"We have to send a strong deterrent message - that these people will be jailed with no remission and no parole."

Mr Brennan said when the death penalty was abolished in 1969, life sentences were supposed to mean imprisonment for the rest of your life.

He said this is the only way to "stabilise public fears" over the threat posed by dangerous criminals.

When people have no hope, have nothing left to live for, they can behave very violently
Frances Crook

Consultant forensic psychologist Paul Britton also believes some criminals should never be let out of jail.

He says most criminals can be put through treatment and integrated back into society.

"But from time to time," he says, "you come across a person who is intact, but the thing that makes their heart sing is hurting people.

"There is only one place for them and that is away from society, whether in a hospital or a prison."

Campaigners for better standards in prisons disagree. The Howard League for Penal Reform calls whole-life tariffs cruel.

Frances Crook, director of the group, says the tariffs create too many problems of their own.

"You always have to give people the chance that, at some point in the future, if they have behaved well and no longer pose a danger, they can be released.

David Bieber
US citizen David Bieber murdered a policeman in Leeds

"When people have no hope, have nothing left to live for, they can behave very violently. This can create very difficult situations."

Murderer Robert Maudsley is one life-long prisoner who has created some of these "difficult situations".

He was jailed in 1974 for garrotting a labourer and has since killed three of his fellow inmates - apparently eating part of the brain of one.

Degrees of murder

But groups from both sides of the argument agree that the system often punishes the wrong people.

Mr Brennan says there should be different degrees of murder.

Terrorist attacks, serial murder and killing of police officers should be separate from the rest and carry a mandatory life tariff.

Other categories of murder should have a minimum 20-year tariff.

At least when someone is given a whole-life tariff, they understand that the period of imprisonment is the rest of their lives
Nicky Padfield
University of Cambridge

Ms Crook says most murderers are jailed after killing their partner, or a loved one.

After serving a long prison term, they should be released because the relationship that caused their crime has come to an end.

Criminologist Nicky Padfield, of Cambridge University, also says the system tends to punish the wrong offenders.

She says whole-life tariffs are restricted to the most serious criminals and there are bigger problems in the justice system.

"My concern is more for those people whose crimes nobody thinks are that serious.

"There is a misconception that when a judge gives a 15-year tariff, the prisoner will be released after 15 years.

"But certain groups of prisoners - arsonists in particular - stay in much longer than their tariffs."

She is also worried at proposals to introduce indeterminite sentences for "public protection".

"At least when someone is given a whole-life tariff, they understand that the period of imprisonment is the rest of their lives."


SEE ALSO:
Widow's 'hate' for police killer
03 Dec 04 |  England



PRODUCTS AND SERVICES

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific