Page last updated at 05:42 GMT, Friday, 20 February 2009

Can serial killers be rehabilitated?

Peter Sutcliffe
Sutcliffe killed 13 women in northern England between 1975 and 1980

Gordon Brown has said it is "very unlikely" that Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe could be recommended for release, following reports that he might be. But should serial killers ever be freed?

Sutcliffe was jailed in 1981 for murdering 13 women.

Having begun his life sentence in prison, he was transferred to Broadmoor secure hospital three years into it, after being diagnosed with schizophrenia.

A recent report in the Sun newspaper suggests that doctors at Broadmoor told Sutcliffe's lawyers that he is no longer dangerous and has been classified as "low risk".

If those who have committed serious crimes such as multiple murder serve their time and are deemed to no longer be a threat, should they be allowed to return to society?

This subject provokes great debate; the murderer's right to have rehabilitation taken seriously versus society's right to protection and to see a punishment by way of imprisonment carried out. There is also the right of the victims' relatives.

'Kindergarten cage'

Dr Bob Johnson, a consultant psychiatrist who worked at the high-security Parkhurst prison and treated several multiple killers, found that the source for their behaviour typically went right back to their childhood.

"Their motivation is always the same. It's a rage carried on through from childhood. If you brutalise children you get brutal adults," he says, adding that it is if they have never moved on from the age they were at that time.

"They're in a kindergarten cage. Once you remove the cause for their actions you remove the stress and they begin to behave like secure civilised adults."

Prison bars behind barbed wire fence
Is rehabilitation behind bars enough?

Dr Johnson believes that with the recognition, and treatment, of this reason for their behaviour, those violent offenders can one day return to society.

This suggestion, that criminals such as serial killers can be rehabilitated to the extent that they are able to return to the outside world, has its opponents.

Consultant forensic psychologist Dr Keith Ashcroft says that "extreme caution must be exercised" when making any decisions on serial murderers being freed.

"The majority of serial sexual homicide offenders will be diagnosed as having psychopathic personality disorder, which the vast majority of clinicians would view as being problematic in terms of treatment," he says.

"Such psychopaths are extremely good at manipulating prison staff, as well as mental health professionals, and over time they can eventually be perceived as being 'cured' and ready for reintroduction into society.

Liberty sacrificed

The other part of the issue is whether, having committed such an act as murder, freedom is any longer an option.

In a country where punishment by imprisonment is closely tied to the justice system, it can be argued that by killing another person the right to freedom has been forfeited.

The most outrageous thing someone can do is murder someone else
David Green

David Green, director of the think tank Civitas, argues that society is built upon a "moral standard" - that to be both free and live together at the same time, there must be basic rules in which allegiance is owed to one another.

"The most outrageous thing someone can do is murder someone else," he told the BBC.

"If we're serious about upholding that moral standard then, for the sake of our common humanity, that punishment should be carried out without fail. "

He says that rehabilitation should still take place, but that it should happen behind bars.

A third party whose right, it can be argued, should be taken into consideration, is the family of a murder victim.

Dr Ashcroft believes that their feelings should play a significant part when deciding if someone should be released.

"The relatives and survivors of such horrendous crimes rightly demand retribution for their loss and suffering, which serves both a therapeutic as well as a judicial function," he said.

"Therefore the consideration of these victims should be pivotal in the decision whether or not release serial homicide offenders who have been deemed as being no longer a danger to the public."

Although in Peter Sutcliffe's case, it is "very unlikely" that he will be released, it is very likely the argument regarding serial killers' rehabilitation will continue.

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