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Last Updated: Friday, 16 June 2006, 12:16 GMT 13:16 UK
The history of life
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The case of paedophile Craig Sweeney, who may serve only five years in prison, has highlighted the "contradictions" of what must be one of the legal system's most curious concepts: the life sentence.

There can be fewer grimmer things one could hear than the words "life imprisonment". And yet they are heard at the end of every murder case. If a defendant is convicted they must be given a life sentence.

But a life sentence can mean anything from a few years to spending the rest of your natural life in a cell. One of Britain's longest serving-prisoners, Harry Roberts, has already served four decades in prison for the murder of three policemen.

The changing face of the life sentence paints a picture of attitudes to justice in Britain; a picture which is not what critics of the justice system might expect.

With some commentators adamant there should be major changes to the life sentence in the wake of the Sweeney case, it's widely suggested that the public's trust in the courts has been betrayed.

The notion of a bargain with the public that there would be substitution of very long sentences as a quid pro quo for abolition is nonsense
Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC

It has been suggested that when hanging was abolished, with the public set against the measure, it was clear that it would be replaced by whole-life imprisonment for murderers.

Put like this it is easy to understand the public's ire. If life was meant to mean life, as a substitute for the death penalty, and has been chiselled away by "activist judges" over four decades, believers in democracy would justifiably feel aggrieved.

But leading QC Sir Louis Blom-Cooper has for many years studied the sentencing of murderers and says this popular idea is a myth.

"The notion of a bargain with the public that there would be substitution of very long sentences as a quid pro quo for abolition is nonsense. There never was any such bargain. When abolition took place the legislation was simply to get rid of the penalty."

'Sex murderers'

Today, there are a mere 30 whole-life tariff offenders in the prison system. The most recent is binman Mark Hobson, whose sadistic murder of his girlfriend, her sister and an elderly couple, led to a whole-life tariff despite his guilty plea.

And it is clear he is one of the small group of murderers that MPs envisaged would die in prison when they voted for abolition in 1965.

Walking free from prison

But the major change in sentencing for murderers in the post-war period came even before that landmark date.

The 1957 Homicide Act established lesser categories of murder that would never be punished with hanging, but instead warrant a life sentence.

Mandatory lifers

Skip forward eight years to 1965, and the average time served for a life sentence was nine years, Sir Louis says.

And in a debate leading to the abolition, the home secretary readily admitted that many murderers would serve "eight, nine or 10 years", and that he was "reluctant to make it much longer".

Skip forward to 2006 and anyone who thinks we have been getting softer on lifers has to accept the picture is more complicated. Mandatory lifers - ie murderers - serve an average of 14 years - a figure that hasn't changed for a decade. For other lifers - those convicted of non-murder crimes but given "life" - the average has been in decline and now stands at nine years.

Mark Hobson: Whole life
Ian Huntley: 40 years
Roy Whiting: 50 years

"If nine years was acceptable then why is it 14 now?" Sir Louis asks. "This is the media's fault. People get fed with material which is at best incomplete and at worst distorted."

Today's calls for "life to mean life" were also made by MPs debating the end of hanging in 1964, but ultimately rejected.

In fact, the idea of a life sentence dates back to reforms in the early 19th Century, which took away the death penalty for what today might be considered fairly humdrum offences - stealing, for example.

But even then, when many of those sentenced to death were reprieved, life might not mean life.

People who are told that somebody has got life find it absolutely unbelievable that somebody could be out in 3-5 years
Norman Brennan

"Your liberty was at the hands of the executive but it never meant you would [necessarily] spend the rest of your life in prison, although many people did. Then and now [people] die in prison," says Sir Louis.

And perhaps the key change over the last 200 years is the say of government in keeping people locked up.

In the 1960s, even prison rights campaign groups - such as the Howard League for Penal Reform - accepted a home secretary's right to say when a lifer could be released.

That influence began to erode with the establishment of parole boards in 1967, although the government clawed back power in 1983, when then home secretary Leon Brittan made it clear he could set minimum tariffs. This, however, was effectively ended with the passing of the 2003 Criminal Justice Act.

Instead there were to be tough new guidelines in setting minimums, with whole-life tariffs to go to premeditated, sexual or sadistic multiple murders, or those involving abduction, as well as the murder of a single child where these elements are involved.

The key term in all this sentencing is minimum. There is no guarantee the Parole Board will recommend a release even where the minimum term has been well exceeded. It is their job to assess risk.

And this is extraordinarily controversial in the area of sex offenders as well as murderers. Craig Sweeney, gruesome as his crime was, would probably not have been sentenced to life in the 1960s. Recent legislation has made it much easier to give life sentences to serious repeat sex offenders.

Recidivism research

But to critics of the softness of the justice system he is just the sort of person who should be detained for a very, very long time. His trial judge said release should only be considered when he no longer poses a "significant risk". And views on sentencing of sex offenders and non-sex offenders might all come down to the interpretation of this term "significant".

Norman Brennan, of the Victims of Crime Trust, says: "People who are told that somebody has got life find it absolutely unbelievable that somebody could be out in 3-5 years. It makes a nonsense of the life sentence."

Mr Brennan says the criminal justice system is failing to deal adequately with serious offenders, either violent or sexual.

Recent research into sex offenders by the Home Office suggested that of a study group of 173, anything up to 20% had re-offended in the years immediately after release.

But those who defend the justice system against any further toughening point to the large number of lifers currently in jail and the long sentences served by those lifers.

It is a very different picture from 1964 when former Tory Home Secretary Henry Brooke noted that the previous year there had only been six men in prison more than 10 years.

Even he noted: "If we are going to contemplate, and we may have to, keeping people in for the rest of their natural lives - although this is a terrible thing to contemplate with a young man perhaps sentenced in his twenties we must bear in mind there comes a time beyond which most people would become less and less fit for return to the free world."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

What a refreshing change to read such an unbiaised, unopinionated article. Millions of pounds are spent on policing, the prison service and paying for the damage crime causes through insurance etc. but these, like sentencing, are all after the fact. Isn't it time the issues that lead to crime were investigated methodically and scientifically so we could eliminate some of it before it happens?
Malcolm Parker, Basingstoke

This article does not "nicely correct" any myths. The fact that nine years was the average length of time served for a life sentence in 1965 tells us nothing - in fact we should expect the figure in 1965 to be low because of the use of capital punishment for the worst crimes.

Sir Louis Blom-Cooper, QC, makes at least nonsequiturs. "If 9 years was acceptable then why is it 14 now?" he says, but gives no evidence that 9 years "was" acceptable then: the fact that it was the average then doesn't mean it was acceptable. "The notion of a bargain with the public that there would be substitution of very long sentences as a quid pro quo for abolition is nonsense. There never was any such bargain. When abolition took place the legislation was simply to get rid of the penalty." The fact that no bargain was "legislated" does not tell us that the notion of a bargain wasn't used to persuade the public that abolition was a good thing.

This article and this QC are fooling readers into thinking they are presenting a balanced point of view when all they are doing is presenting the "opposite" point of view. They are skewing the evidence and repackaging the facts just as badly as the media they criticise for doing just that.
Ellie, Cambridge

The most common mistake people make is thinking that when these people under a life sentance are released after 9, 10 years (or whatever the time is). However, they are not free men. They are on parole, and a crime as petty as a public disturbance, or drunk and disordly will end their parole and put them back in prision until they are deemed suitable for parole.

Its for this reason that few will re-offend, unless they really do want to spend life behind bars. Though I can see why families of victims may not approve of this.
Christian Haythorn, North Wales

As someone who worked in the Prison Service and for much of the time was concerned with preparing paperwork for Parole boards and making arrangements for the release and supervision of prisoners, can I make the following points.

1)When prisoners are released , whether on parole or at the end of their sentence, they will initially be on licence and can be recalled to prison for breach of even the smallest of these conditions. Even after the licence expires, they can be recalled to prison if they commit any further offence (however minor) before their original sentence term is completed (which in the case of lifers is for the rest of their life)

2) Finding somewhere for released prisoners to live is extremely difficult as licence conditions (eg not going near a victim's home or not living with persons under 18) may mean that even if they still have a home they may not be able to go there. Hostels are often the only answer - and surely better even if close to a school than having the exoffender in a bed & breakfast or sleeping rough?

3) One of the comments refers to long sentences being a deterrent. Unfortunately a lot of criminals (even ones who have been to prison)don't stop to think before committing an offence , especially in sexual or violent offences (if it isn't a matter of pure impulse, a lot of them think they have a right to do what they want and other people and the law have no right to stop them)One of the ways in which the prison service tries to prepare prisoners for eventual release is by teaching them to think about cause & effect & other people.

4) "Good behaviour" is not just absence of rioting etc but includes cooperating with courses etc aimed at correcting offending behaviour (be it drugs, sex,violence or as above poor skills in thinking ) or improving skills (literacy, a trade etc) so that they will be fitted to go out into the community.
Margaret, Stafford UK

There are two category of offenders where the severest possible punishment should be given, one is child sex attacks and the second, attacks on the elderly. I cannot believe that life imprisonment can mean 4 years inside. Why call it life? There should be no hope for such offenders and no leniency offered.
Steve, Swansea

The problems were seeing in this country is the public automatically believing the sensational media reporting. The media should be held accountable for inadequately researched coverage of news. Thus reducing the pressure on politicians to provide knee-jerk legislation just to appease the voters out cry!
Andy Ford, Barnsley, UK

We need to get away from thinking of people in prison to be different from people out of prison. Nobody is a "monster" as the tabloids often call them. Everyone in jail right now is human, just like you or I. Its easy to forget that. They may have done awful things, but they are still human.

Also, I think people have been desensitised a bit to sentences. Did you ever get told as a child to go to your room, to be grounded? Even for a night as a child its awful, imagine what it would be like for a whole year as an adult... To be honest I can't even imagine it.
Peter Douglas, Edinburgh

"Thou shalt not kill", but if you do then you'll get incarcerated for a few years and do it again when you are released... Surely, if you take someone's life you should have to endure a life of punishment?! Murderers (and in my opinion paedophiles, rapists and persistant criminals) should be locked up and the key thrown away. Having these people roaming the streets after just a few years of incarceration is an insult to the sanctity of life and the people's lives they have ruined.
Lauren Farrell, Stafford, UK

Since the term 'life' seems to have become hopelessly ambiguous, there must be a case for abolishing and replacing it in each case with a numeric value. The arguments concerning the potential for the redemption of individuals are persuasive, but this ought to be proportionate to the severity of the crime committed and not relative to some abstract concept that does not seem to have currency with the general public. If our legal system remains based upon being tried before a jury of one's peers, the resulting sentencing ought to be comprehensible and transparent to the same. A judicial sleight of hand serves the interests of no-one.
Mark French, Dubai, UAE

The problem with all mandatory life sentencing is that once an unarrested offender knows that he is bang to rights for murder, his disincentive to commit more crime evaporates. He may feel that he may as well be "hanged for a sheep as a lamb".
Kelly Mouser, Upminster, Essex

I think a genuine whole-life sentence is far crueller than the death penalty. Is there no way in which such people can be given the free-choice alternative of a painless lethal injection? Suicide, after all, is no longer illegal for the rest of us.
Meg Little, Glasgow, U.K

I think it is quite likely that Caroline (London) would change her views about redemption for all quite quickly if she was a victim of crime herself. People who commit violent crimes which result in loss of life deserve to spend the rest of their natural life in prison. It is an insult to victims of crime to hear of violent criminals being released after a few years because of "good behaviour" in prison. As Paul said, this should be expected and bad behaviour should result in a longer sentence. Prison sentences should act as a deterrent but that is certainly not the case at the moment. Judges who choose to give short sentences for terrible crimes should be ashamed of themselves and they should be asked to explain their decision to the victim or their family.
Joanne, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The guy who glibly states "there are no repeat offenders in capitally-punished crimes" is wrong. There are undoubtedly repeats in the (surprisingly frequent) cases of where the wrong person is executed.
Alan, Hampshire, UK

Some crimes are so heinous that the perpetrators have, in effect, cast themselves out from the human race; the Moors murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, would fit into this category. Nothing they could do would ever redeem them in this life, and their only hope for redemption -if any- is in whatever life might be to come. In this life, they should never again be free to walk the earth.
Eddie, Plymouth

John Airey says that "even the worse offenders must still have hope" - no they must not - at least no hope of ever being free - they can hope for better conditions if they behave, they can hope for lighter duties if they behave, or they can just hope for a short life - but for some crimes nothing short of whole of life will do.
Huw Sayer, London

In addition to moral reasoning, we must consider that it costs us an incredible amount of money to keep someone in prison. Prisoners should be people who's release would pose a direct threat to the rights and freedoms of the individuals of our society. We must safeguard the sanity and logic of our justice system against this tabloid hysteria. People who no longer (or never did)pose a threat should complete their sentences in the service of the community.
J McGilligan, Brighton

What should happen in the case of an elderly man who confesses to killing his wife because she was in agony from cancer? In court he would have to be given a mandatory life sentence. Less than a century ago he would have been executed.
Mike, London UK

I was born in 1954. When I was growing up I can remember big stories about murders that had been commited. These stories were all over the tv news and headlines on the first pages of the press, national and local. These days you can get murders 10 for a penny. The reason there has been a proliferation of these evil crimes is because there is no deterrent.

I believe the answer is to bring back the death penalty for the most evil crimes. Look at the problems that would cure. Evil people would not be allowed back out to do further crimes. People would stop carrying knives, just in case. The death penalty could be used for terrorist attacks, racially motivated murders, murder of anyone in the police, ambulance service or fire service, severe child molestation and multiple murders. I know this sounds a bit extreme, but in this day and age we have to do something really bold to sort out all the mess that is happening around us. There is no decency anymore.
Geoff , Cardiff, Wales

Louis Blom-Cooper does not appear to have mentioned that the number of murders 40 years ago was perhaps a tenth of what they are today - it would be much higher were it not for the advances in medicine. There were very few serving prisoners who had served over ten years because there were so few less murderers. Also 10 years in a 1960s 'real' prison is probably worth 30 years in a cushy 2006 one.
Carl Faulkner, Rochdale

The media needs to get its facts right. People are not "let off" half way through their sentence - the second half of their sentence is when they have been released from prison but are still on licence. Lifers are always only released on licence and a probation officer can - with appropriate procedure - have a lifer returned to jail without them ever having comitted a further offence. Life does mean life, not life in prison, but life under supervision! Thank you for finally getting the debate onto the right footing (Please could you have a word with your colleagues on Newsnight, Panorama and the Ten O'Clock news!!)
Stephen, Doncaster, UK

I agree with Paul Howard that we should consider adding on time for bad behaviour. No politician will want to drop the euphemism "Life" because the victims' families and the public would be outraged if murderers only received 5 years. By maintaining the "Life" sentence, the pretence can be maintained & the law-abiding population duped. As to criminals being recalled to prison after having committed another crime, I am sure this does happen - only for them to be released to kill again when another paltry few years has elapsed.
Angela, Essex

The article states that in 1965 the average life sentence was 9 years. "If nine years was acceptable then why is it 14 now?" asks Sir Louis Blom-Cooper. I would ask if it really was acceptable then, or was that because the public were not aware of it, and like today, imagined that life meant "life"?
Chris, London, UK

Probably some people believe that destroying offenders, by killing them (US) or locking them up forever (UK) will protect the public. Or is it hate, that makes people want to destroy them? Remember that every offender once has been innocent and that has not stopped him or her from committing a crime. And then hate is one of the main causes of the worst crimes. For a Christian, mercy is a duty and justice should not equal revenge!
Markus, Horncastle

With the advances in technology, specifically DNA testing, it is possible to be 100% certain of a criminals guilt. In that case, for the worst crimes, aggravated rape and murder especially, the death penalty should be carried out as the element of doubt has been removed.
Neil, Worcester

There is much to be said for Michael Howards idea of time added for bad behaviour rather than time off for good behaviour. Sir Louis is rather contemptuous of any bargain between the public and Parliament over the issue of life imprisonment in place of hanging. What he forgets is that the basis of law is a contract between the people and the state - we give up our rights of individual revenge and retribution to the state, expecting it's agents will protect us from those who do us harm. By placing so much emphasis on the rights of the criminal he and his fellow lawyers are undermining that contract and showing contempt for the law abiding majority.
David, Crawley

So Sir Louis Blom-Cooper says life was never intended to mean life. Shades of Edward Heath and his claim that the EU was never promoted as a Common Market. In both cases it semms that one version is given at the time to appease the public while the 'good and great' pursue their own agenda, only to claim later that their version was right all along. Sorry Sir Louis - my memory's not that bad!
Anne Hayward, Stowmarket, Suffolk

An average of 14 years in prison, as a substitute for 'life sentence' is much too short. The family of the victim do not have the privilege of hoping that they'd see their loved one again in 14 years' time, pass news onto them etc. no matter what they do. The pain inflicted onto them by the murderer or sex offender should be matched by as equal a pain as possible, inflicted on the murder(s) and their family. At least that is why I think the Goddess of Justice holds a balance in her hand.
Ileana, Lancaster, UK

In the case of sex offenders in prison, as they are not in contact with children or images on the internet, it is almost impossible to assess their risk of reoffending. There is nothing in prison to stimulate their abnormal behaviour pattern. As a result, the prisoner can behave well and be considered for release but may reoffend when they are once again in the presence of children or whatever stimulates their abnormal reactions, as did Sweeney. The parole board has an almost impossible task in making an objective assessement.
Carl, Plymouth

It's nice to see the media presenting the facts for once, rather than pandering to the outraged masses baying for blood. If we can't believe in the possibility of redemption for everyone - no matter how heinous the crime - we don't deserve to call ourselves human.
Caroline, London, UK

Maybe we need to look at the terminology and simply not use the term "life sentence" except when it really does mean what it says. That way we, the public, are not given any false impression of how long someone will remain in prison.
Richard, Torquay

The public have lost the belief in criminal system that justice can be done. It now believes that to much consideration is given to the perbetrator and not enough to the victim and their families. The deterrent in the penalty is not there and there will come a time when someone will take the law into their own hands and a breakdown in society could occur. The "good" must feel that it is worth it. Otherwise what is accepted as bad behaviour today transforms to acceptable behavious to-morrow with standards blurring.
Robert Ogles, Sudbury, Suffolk

Life used to mean until you die! In a large number of these cases I would make it one year, for appeals. Then the execution would take place. James Hanratty was guilty and the justice system of the 60s worked quite well. There are no repeat offenders in capitally punished crimes.
Benny, Brit in Minnesota

So why call a five year sentence life? It seems like a perversion of the English language. Rather than give criminals a discount for not lying and wasting tax payers' money they should add on 50% if a criminal pleads not guilty and is found to have comitted perjury. It is a crime after all as Lord Archer found out. And time off for good behaviour? What does that mean in practice? Time off if they don't riot or assault a prison guard? No, add on time for bad behaviour. Come on, some common sense please!
Paul Howard, hemington england

I think that this article should also have mentioned the fact that lifers are also liable to be recalled to prison at any time after their release, even if their behaviour is short of committing a crime. The emdia misrepresents what a life sentence really means and this is probably the most balanced article I have read on this subject.
Emma, Cambridge

This nicely corrects the myth that "things were much better in the good old days" and that "New Labour is responsible for short sentences". I wish people would read the facts, not the Daily Mirror's propaganda.
Peter, Nottingham

Even the worst offender must still have hope, particularly if they plead guilty, that there is something they can do to reduce their punishment. Without it, there is no way to enforce discipline within the prison service as the prisoner has nothing that can be given to them or removed from them.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

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