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Are 100-Year Prison Sentences Really the Answer?

08/01/2014 16:35 GMT | Updated 10/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Last Thursday, David Cameron came out in favour of a "life means life" approach to prison sentences. This seems to be the latest in a stream of exercises in vote poaching, and yet another of the Prime Minister's populist attempts at pandering to widespread right-wing sympathies.

Nonetheless such an admission is a dangerous one. As with the case of creating a fervour surrounding Bulgarian and Romanian migrants wholly disproportionate to their potential effect, let alone damage, it seems that Cameron is prioritising political buoyancy over well thought-out changes in policy.

There is a very real danger of such sweeping and ill-advised judicial reforms coming into play. The Prime Minister's words came as members of his cabinet tried to find alternatives to "whole-life" sentences, which were blocked by a European Court on the grounds that they breached the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Court argued that denying a person the hope of release was denying them a fundamental right; a prisoner must have the 'right to review'. The government claim that some crimes are so heinous that this fundamental human right might be ignored. As such, they are currently piecing together legislation which would circumvent the unfortunate obstacle of basic human rights.

The reformed legislation would enable judges to hand down sentences of a hundred years or more. In theory, such sentences would permit the prisoner to appeal against their sentence, but the likelihood of any such appeal being successful would be minimal. In most cases, the prisoner would die in prison before their release date.

Predictably, there are many issues with such judicial reforms. Depending on the source, there are currently between 49 and 52 prisoners in the UK serving a so-called "whole-life" sentence. Under the new legislation, these prisoners would likely be serving sentences of a hundred years or more. When compared to the total prison population in the UK, which stands at 85,300, such a small number of prisoners might seem insignificant. Yet if the government passes and enacts further legislation permitting such lengthy sentences, a dangerous precedent may well be set, and numbers of such prisoners may increase dramatically.

Moreover, the Prime Minister talked in alarmingly general terms when he referred to 'some people who commit such dreadful crimes' that life should mean life. Perhaps it was a symptom of his attempt to gain popularity, but talking of such severe sentencing in such a vague way raises questions about the integrity of the legislation itself. When judges are condemning people to life with little chance of release, surely such subjectivity should be avoided at all cost.

Determining which criminals and which crimes would merit sentences of hundreds of years would be difficult, particularly in an age where media coverage of a court case can generate immense pressure for heavy or lenient sentencing. The judicial system's approach to judgement is also influenced by whether prison is seen as a punishment, or as a manner of keeping dangerous individuals away from society - or both.

When Cameron endorsed prison sentences of indefinite length, he was hailing them as the appropriate punishment to certain crimes in accordance with right-wing sympathies; the new legislation also appeals to those groups in that it fights the influence of the European Court over British judicial systems. Viewing prison as a punishment isn't constructive, and it creates a penitentiary system which dehumanises inmates and prevents progression or growth.

In Norway, prison is a punishment, but it is seen as an opportunity to rehabilitate those who have committed crimes, so that they might re-enter into society and play a positive role within it. There are, of course, rehabilitation programmes in UK prisons. Nonetheless, the proportion of prisoners who go on to re-offend is under 30% in Norway, roughly half of the rate of recidivism in Britain. By condemning an individual to an exceptionally long stretch in prison, we prevent that process from taking place, and preclude them from ever being a constructive member of society.

Conversely, there are of course some individuals who commit crimes which show them to pose a threat to members of our society. There are some infamous cases of serial- or child-killers, most recently Mark Bridger, who have been handed lengthy or "whole-life" sentences for their crimes. In these instances, the application of a prison sentence is appropriate because they have committed offences which show them to be potentially dangerous.

Even if we concede that the crimes of certain individuals lead us to question whether they can ever be safely reinserted into society, and that these are the individuals who might serve hundred-year sentences, we come up against another problem. In most of the extreme cases of murder, torture, or rape which might merit "whole-life" sentences, it seems apt to question whether any individual who is mentally-well might ever commit such a crime.

The Norwegian Courts famously had to deal with this issue in the case of Anders Breivik, the man who murdered 77 people in a politically-motivated terror attack. One forensic psychiatrist found him to be a paranoid schizophrenic; the other found him to have been mentally stable at the time of the attack. The Oslo Court found him to be sane, and thus culpable of his crimes.

If he was not mentally-ill, many might view Breivik as an inherently evil person. This is the argument of many "whole-life" advocates, that some people do and always will pose a real threat to society, and thus must be kept away from it for the rest of their lives. But if 'evil' exists, surely it is in itself a mental illness. At the very least we might concede that an individual like Breivik was so far removed from societal norms in terms of his attitude to violence, to life, and to death, that he could not be considered to be mentally-well; most people would not plan and perpetrate the terrible, premeditated attack as he did in summer 2011.

Viewed from such a perspective, we might reconfigure our view of the proposed judicial reform and of life sentences in general. There are, of course, many prisoners who receive immense help and worthwhile rehabilitation in the UK. Nonetheless, attitudes like the one expressed by the Prime Minister concerning prison and penitentiary sentences are alarming. They suggest that the political elite view prison as a punishment, rather than as an opportunity to reform. Only the latter approach will reduce recidivism and produce positive results, the other leads to stagnation.

Perhaps most concerning, Cameron's ideal is alarmingly synonymous with the penitentiary system in many American states. It might have been an empty comment designed to raise the stakes in the political popularity contest, but his words were a disturbing harbinger of what our prisons could look like. The 100-year sentences he spoke of were inspired by similar legislation which is already enforced in the US, and widely condemned by many.

In several US states, life without parole can be given for non-violent crimes. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 3,200 inmates in the US are serving life sentences with no hope of release for non-violent crimes, from stealing a jacket to selling $10 of marijuana. The American prison system is privatised; it foments recidivism, traps the poorest in a cycle of detention and poverty, and does little to deal with the fundamental causes of crime. Cameron's comments may have been vote poaching, but if we don't watch our step, we could find ourselves in an equally dire situation.