Editorial: Prime minister's pledge to make life sentences mean life will have little impact

Morning View (Photo: gina)
Morning View (Photo: gina)

The prime minister intends to increase the number of prison term in which people will never be released. Rishi Sunak was speaking in the aftermath of the conviction of Lucy Letby, who was was sentenced to a so-called whole-life term for the murder of seven babies.

A whole-life term is necessary because a life sentence is a laughable misnomer: in reality for murder it used to mean a tariff of about 13 years, after which almost all murderers were released. While they were, in theory, only eligible for release at that point almost all actually got it. Naive parole boards accepted their self-serving apologies and displays of remorse.

Someone who carried out a calculating murder at age 26 was free in late 30s, perhaps to live 50 years in good health, their victim an increasingly distant memory. It undermined the idea of murder as the worst crime and society’s ultimate taboo. Now tariffs (ie release points) have edged up to 15 years, which is still pitiful.

The problem with Mr Sunak's pledge is not only that it is made as an election approaches next year, but because it will have little impact. Only 70 criminals serve such term in the UK, despite thousands of people having been convicted for murder, many hundreds of whom are already free. It is easy to get tough on high-profile murders about which people feel revulsion. What about pre-meditated murders which do not get so much publicity? Pre-meditation should be the chief aggravating factor in whether or not to throw away the key.

In 2020 Christopher Robinson got a minimum 22-year term for his pre-meditated murder of the prison officer Adrian Ismay, after befriending him via St John's Ambulance volunteering. In the Troubles he would have served less under ordinary release terms (let alone 1998 ones). The increase is welcome but still inadequate for such a crime.