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United Kingdom
Human Rights

Living death
Britain has political prisoners. Ian Kentzer is one of them.
He explains what’s wrong with the mandatory life sentence for murder.

'Kill one person and you are called a murderer. Kill one million and you become a conqueror.’

Whatever truth lies in that statement, the gruesome act of murder never ceases to fascinate people. No matter how frequently the world’s media swamp us with desensitizing images of untimely death in all its horrible guises, people respond, not with repulsion but with a morbid, disguised interest. Who has failed to follow the OJ Simpson case in America, the years of racial killings in South Africa, Bosnia’s ethnic cleansing, the Gloucester murders in England, even Australia’s old ‘dingo’ case? The list is geographically diverse and seemingly endless.

On a global scale murder ranges from genocide carried out by totalitarian states as a matter of policy, through a spectrum of less serious offences, down to the compassionate doctor who carries out a mercy killing. Some countries recognize that a scale of seriousness exists. Some countries do not. As a result the categoriz-ation of and punishment for murder varies tremendously from one country to the next.

Britain no longer passes the death penalty, unlike some states in the US. But it imposes a sentence of mandatory life imprisonment that is supposed to satisfy the public need for retribution and deterrence. It inflicts a living death on the convicted murderer. In the US there are different classifications of murder and subsequent defences, such as provocation, self-defence or manslaughter. But Britain has no such distinctions: anyone convicted of murder, regardless of the facts of the case, will be sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment.

Why then is the time actually served by lifers dictated by politicians and not by the trial judge who has considered all the facts of the case? The answer is a damning criticism of British politics.

Judges who pass a mandatory life sentence write to the Lord Chief Justice recommending the time to be served. The Lord Chief Justice adds his views and sends the case on to the Home Secretary. For many years this was a secret process. The lifer was led to believe that the ‘tariff’ (the minimum period of incarceration) was decided by the judiciary.

In 1993 the Law Lords ruled that lifers should be given the gist of the ‘secret’ information. A potential human-rights violation was thereby exposed. It transpired that in 60 per cent of the cases the Home Secretary had taken it upon himself to ignore the recommendations of the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice and increased the ‘tariff’ dramatically. This meant that many lifers were in effect serving sentences imposed not by the judiciary but by the Government.

There is no legislation which permits political interference in judicial decisions. Yet political meddling persists throughout the life sentence; transfer between prisons and ‘recategorization’ for good behaviour is decided in secret by ministerial underlings at the Home Office’s Lifer Management Unit.

Ian Kentzer: more 'lifers' in Britain than in the rest of the European Union put together.
photo by IAN KENTZER

Any eventual decision to release a lifer is made by the Home Secretary and is based on three criteria: retribution and deterrence, the risk to the public, and how public confidence in the criminal justice system might be affected. The third criteria only came into effect in 1993 when it was introduced by the current Home Secretary, Michael Howard. It means that while ‘law and order’ are high on the political agenda lifers must languish in prison.

Lifers in Britain now serve an average minimum of 15 years. They have in effect become political prisoners. England and Wales now hold in excess of 3,100 mandatory lifers, representing more people incarcerated for life than in the rest of the European Union combined. Britain’s lifer population is growing by an average of 250 every year; not quite as drastic as in those US states that operate the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy, but alarming nonetheless.

Judges in Britain must pass the same mandatory life sentence on the woman who murders her brutish husband after she has suffered years of physical and mental abuse, the doctor convicted of a compassionate mercy killing, and the professional criminal who kills in cold blood. This disparity is now widely recognized. Radical calls for the abolition of the mandatory life sentence have increased.

In 1993 the Prison Reform Trust sponsored an Independent Committee on the Penalty for Homicide, chaired by a former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane. Contributions were sought from the judiciary, victim-support groups, academics from as far afield as Australia, the Prison Service and lifers themselves.

The Committee concluded that the mandatory life sentence should indeed be abolished. In its place judicial powers should allow sentences for murder to be up to a maximum of life imprisonment. This decision was partly based on reports from Australia’s New South Wales Legislature, which in 1982 abolished the mandatory life sentence for murder. The state of Victoria followed suit in 1986. There has been no increase in homicide since then.

Commenting in The Times Lord Lane wrote: ‘Automatic life imprisonment for murder is anachronistic, potentially unjust and needs to be abolished. Most murders are not truly heinous and it should be up to the courts, not the Home Secretary, to decide on punishments.’ The report of the Committee, which took a year to compile and publish, was rejected by Michael Howard within one hour of receiving it.

A great deal of publicity has recently been given to the case of Private Clegg, a British soldier convicted of murder while on duty in Northern Ireland. Mr Howard is now under immense pressure to reconsider his position. Realistically he has only two options open to him: either to introduce a separate charge for serving members of the armed forces, or to abolish the mandatory life sentence completely.

If he fails to act soon, then the final stage of the campaign to abolish a sentence which imposes a living death will lie in the European Court of Human Rights. The British Government has taken far too much power to itself, and neither lifers nor most reformers will accept political control over a criminal justice system which stems from Magna Carta and holds that accused people may only be tried by their peers and punished accordingly.

Ian Kentzer is serving a mandatory life sentence. He has won two consecutive Koestler Awards for literature and has published a short collection of poetry. He can be contacted as CV2582, HM Prison Full Sutton, Moor Lane, Yorks YO4 IPS, UK.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

New Internationalist issue 267 magazine cover This article is from the May 1995 issue of New Internationalist.
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