Life Sentences: Public Understanding

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:10 pm on 30 April 2024.

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Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich 5:10, 30 April 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered public understanding of life sentences.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I welcome this opportunity to discuss crime and justice, one of the topics that motivated me to enter politics and that I have focused on in my time as an MP. As the son of a policeman, and having spent time volunteering as a special constable, I am acutely aware of the way that crime can destroy families and upend the lives of decent, law-abiding people. Wanting the victims of crime and their families to benefit from a more just justice system is something that I feel passionately about. I always aim to contribute to the debate and to edge the system in a direction that I think better delivers the justice that it should be set up to deliver. I have spoken before in this place about my concern that all too often the victims of the most serious crimes and their families do not see justice done.

Before I speak about the use of the term “life sentences” specifically, I will set out the background. My time campaigning in this area has taught me that there is what I have described previously as “intellectual snobbery” about people who think that our justice system is at times insufficiently punitive. There are well-meaning and in many respects important groups that lobby hard to make the system less punitive, and nothing that I believe invalidates their arguments or counteracts efforts to deliver reform and rehabilitation of offenders. If such efforts work and overall there are fewer victims of crime, that will be a good thing, but as a Conservative, I believe that we should keep one eye on reality as well as one eye on the ideal future. Criminal behaviour is not going anywhere any time soon, and even the best rehabilitative systems see recalcitrant and very serious offenders.

Also, we have to recognise that, in and of itself, punishing offenders is a public good; in fact, it is recognised in the law as one of the purposes of sentencing. Whether we like to admit it or not, it helps victims and their family and friends to feel that justice has been done, and in the aftermath of a serious crime, whatever comfort we can bring to victims’ families is incredibly important. I would argue that punishment is fundamental to our system. It tells victims and their families that they should not take matters into their own hands, because the justice system will deal with things fairly.

Of course, there are no black-and-white answers stating what that will mean in every case, but almost nobody who argues for less punitive measures would suggest, for example, that a murderer—even one who we could guarantee would not offend again—should spend just four weeks in prison. Nearly everyone accepts that punishment is necessary, and it is easy to suggest outcomes that 99% of people would agree instinctively are too lenient. In the most serious cases, there is in my view a huge—indeed yawning—gap between what most fair-minded people would think constitutes justice and what actually happens.

I am also concerned that the Department itself—the Ministry of Justice—does not sufficiently engage with this issue. That engagement is sometimes missing from impact assessments and policy changes, and perhaps even more worrying is its absence from the MOJ’s own annual report. The focus is on victims’ experiences of the processes of the justice system, which is of course important and to be welcomed, but I think that what most victims and their families want most of all is for justice to be done, and the MOJ has little to say on whether or not the justice system as it stands is actually delivering that. I have suggested before that we could start by at least asking people what they think about this issue, but there has been little appetite for that.

I will never forget what the father of Sarah Everard said when the murderer of his child was sentenced to a whole-life order—a very rare thing in our justice system. He said that it was the only thing that brought him any comfort. I do not think that he would have felt any different if the perpetrator had not been a policeman, even though it was only because the perpetrator was a policeman that a whole-life order was given. I believe that the view that father expressed is common among the families of murder victims.

Because this is a subjective issue, I think that the views of victims’ families and the public at large should act as a powerful and important standard against which we hold ourselves, albeit it should not be the only consideration. I remember discussing this question with Elsie Urry, a lady whose three children were brutally murdered in 1973 by a man who she thought was then sent to prison for the rest of his life, only for him to be released in 2019 when he was considered to be no longer a danger to others.

That brings me on to the use of the term “life sentence”. The first thing we need is transparency about what our justice system is actually delivering. Without it, the public do not necessarily know what is happening, and if they do not know what is happening, politicians will not be held to account properly, which is very unfortunate in a democracy. The focus of my debate is to highlight the fact that, in the current system, what is happening is frequently misreported and misunderstood, giving the impression that our justice system is more punitive than it is, particularly when it comes to the most serious offences.

What is called a life sentence is in fact, in sentencing practice—a sentence of a minimum term of imprisonment, after which there is an opportunity for release with the remainder of the offender’s life spent on licence. But what is actually reported? What do the public get told? I was pleased to be able to explore this issue in more depth in the Justice Committee’s report, “Public opinion and understanding of sentencing”, which states:

“The use by major news outlets of the phrase “jailed for life” when they are not referring to a whole life order is an example of how media coverage risks perpetuating misunderstandings of the law on life sentences among the public. Reporting of sentencing that potentially inflates expectations of how long a person will serve in prison risks damaging public confidence.”

A whole-life order is a term of lifelong imprisonment; it is different from a life sentence.

Since late last year, my office has regularly monitored this issue, and I am afraid that it is not just the media that spreads this misunderstanding. Even more concerning is the fact that police forces and, on one occasion, the Crown Prosecution Service have incorrectly used the phrase “jailed for life” to describe a life sentence. Just today, Nottinghamshire police force released a statement with a headline saying that two murderers had been “jailed for life”. That is simply not true. The two individuals had received life sentences with minimum terms of 16 and 19 years. That is very different from being jailed for life, as we can reasonably expect both of them to be released.

Since October 2023, we have had to contact eight police forces for using the phrase “jailed for life” in their headlines about 13 cases. On six occasions, the police forces in their opening paragraphs failed even to explain the minimum tariff set by the courts, and once a police force failed entirely to mention that there was a minimum tariff. I am pleased to say that three police forces admitted their mistake and subsequently changed their statements after we contacted them, but the majority have not. That matters. People do not always read all the details of a news article, let alone of an official press release from a police force. Every time “jailed for life” is used of someone subject to a life sentence, people get a false impression of what is happening.

I do not want to diminish the many positive things that this Government have done to introduce what I think are fairer punitive elements into the system, not least the big step change away from Labour’s halfway early release to a two-thirds release for the worst offenders, and the introduction of a whole-life order for premeditated child murder. I welcome the planned introduction of whole-life orders when there is a single victim whose murder involved sexual or sadistic conduct, instead of the existing requirement for two victims.

There is much for me to welcome, but I am clear that we must go further on child murder. I think the requirement for significant premeditation is too high a burden, as it excludes, for example, a parent battering their own child to death in a rage. In addition, where multiple offences are involved, our system is too quick to have sentences served concurrently. We have seen this in cases of historical child sex abuse, where there are sometimes dozens of victims and hundreds of offences. Measures need to be in place to impose whole-life orders in some cases of that type.

Such changes are difficult to make. They are expensive changes for the Government, and there is always pressure on prison places. We can hope for success only if people understand how rarely whole-life orders are used, and that life sentences are not in any way comparable, especially given the usual minimum terms. If most people serving a life sentence did in fact spend most or all of the rest of their life in prison, this would be less pressing, but they do not. On average, they serve 20 years.

Some people will argue that the term “life sentence” is accurate because it describes the rest of an offender’s life being served on licence. When we make that argument, however, we risk offending the victims and their families. Families of victims of murder are really serving a life sentence of grief, trauma, and terrible memories of what happened to their loved one. Someone serving their sentence on licence out in the community is basically just being asked to do what all of us are asked to do, which is to not offend. That is a burden that we all face, and I do not see it as in any way equivalent to spending time in prison. None of this is an issue for those familiar with legal jargon, but when a member of the public who is less well informed of what the terminology means reads “jailed for life”, they are being misled.

I am aware of an almost diametrically opposed view of the public understanding of sentencing, though. A commonly made argument is that, broadly, away from the issue of what a life sentence means, the public underestimate sentencing lengths and think we are less punitive than we are. That is undoubtedly driven by media reporting, where journalists, who have a good innate sense of what the public will think is reasonable, are quick to report cases where they sense that that has not happened. Often, however, an unjustified logical step is made by advocates of less punitive approaches: that because of that, we do not need to make the system more punitive. That approach forgets that two things can be true at the same time: people can think our system is less punitive than it is, but they can also think, even when presented with the reality, that it is not punitive enough.

There is another argument based on research in which the public are asked to go through more detailed theoretical cases and sentencing exercises. Studies suggest that people agree with the sentences normally given when they have the full picture. However, almost universally, these exercises look at less serious offending and cases that are full of mitigating circumstances. My focus has always been on the worst and most serious offending. I do not think I have ever seen one of these exercises take someone through the case, for example, of a serial rapist in and out of prison who refuses to engage in behavioural change programs, or of a parent who batters, tortures, neglects and then murders their own child. That leaves me still firmly of the view that, in the most serious cases, the problem of misreporting remains important.

There are things we can do about this. First, as part of the Justice Committee’s inquiry into the public understanding of sentencing, the Committee travelled to Finland and the Netherlands to speak to officials and stakeholders about how they approached reporting sentencing to the public, including the role of media or press judges engaging with the media on reports. The press judges undertake their media duties in addition to their role as a judge, so that when a sentence is handed down, communication with the media is managed by a press judge rather than the sentencing judge. I was not able to be there, but I know the Committee heard that press judges actively engage with the media on public interest cases in particular, even participating in interviews. Committee members also visited the Helsinki District Court, where judges were encouraged to write their own press notices following the passing of a sentence, in order to take the news into their own hands. As a result, early reports on a sentence were often based upon the judge’s press notice, ensuring greater accuracy in initial media accounts of the sentencing decision. That is something we could consider.

Ultimately, we have to accept that the term “life sentence” is at the root of the problem. It is too easily misunderstood and therefore too easily misreported. If terminology is causing a problem, we should change it. We just do not need the term. The judiciary can describe and report what they are doing: passing a minimum term with an opportunity for future release, followed by continuous monitoring on licence. I do not expect extinguishing the term to cause an overnight change. The media and public bodies are used to using it and “jailed for life” is a catchy headline, but over time we could see a change and have a more honest understanding of our judicial system.

It may be that I and those who share my views have no more success in making the case for changes on the matter of substance—the sentences actually being served—but at least we will be making that case in a more honest environment. I am arguing for transparency in sentencing, because I know that that is important to victims of crime and their families, and to the public. I hope the Minister sees the value in that, and will reflect on what I have said and try to find a positive way forward.