On the way into prison this morning, I was listening to Radio 4 regarding the offence of murder and sentencing options at Crown Court. I must admit to being rather frustrated as I negotiated the motorway traffic before turning off and heading towards my destination. Why? Well, the presenter and guest were speaking about the mandatory 15 years sentence being unfair and disproportionate in some cases. It seems there has been a study which has concluded that members of the public are confused, frustrated and other things as to why a person found guilty for committing a ‘mercy killing’ can be sentenced to the same 15 years as a serial killer. On the other side of the discussion was the issue of whether people who are given life, don’t actually serve the rest of their whole life in prison – this though was not dealt with in any great detail or attention as far as I am aware.
Why was I frustrated? Well, the media seems to specialize in only covering the subject in such a general way without actually knowing or disclosing to the listener what the situation is in relation to the ‘mercy killer’ and the serial killer. Here are the issues:
The judge is compelled to sentence a minimum of 15 years for murder, but within that sentence he also has a degree of latitude in as much as being able to decide exactly how long a person has to wait before he/she can make a first application for parole. In the crimes mentioned earlier, the mercy killer would more than certainly wait less time to apply for parole due to mitigating circumstances and proportionality compared to a serial killer for example. The serial killer may well have a stipulation of 10 years.
Why doesn’t the media report and discuss things more accurately? Well, we seem to be in a growing culture where public/market forces influence our legal system from start to finish. We seem to be developing a culture where the uninformed are able to make serious decisions thanks to our sound-bite culture and shallowness in concern and genuine interest in doing what is good and right.
So, we do have a good level of sentencing options for both extremes, and they are implemented in the way that they are currently for very good reasons…. the law understands differing circumstances that cause people to take a person’s life, for whatever reason or excuse.
Alongside this issue is that when a person is released from prison for such offences, they are released ‘On Licence’. This means that they have not ‘been let off’, but that they are in fact serving the sentence still with the risk of if they do the slightest thing wrong, that they can (and are often) returned to prison for the duration of their sentence regardless of if they have been found guilty of the new offence (that offence can be any offence and not related to the initial crime type eg non-payment of fines for a parking ticket).
So, I would suggest that the laws and sentencing are fine and work fine. They are effective at keeping people off the street and potentially committing further and maybe worse offences. They will remain there until granted parole (some make many applications over years) and not until a panel of multi-disciplinary people are happy in as much as they can be, that the person does not present a risk to the public.