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Why England must abolish the mandatory life sentence for murder

An article published this week in the latest issue of Criminology and Criminal Justice reveals judicial and legal practitioner support for the abolition of the mandatory life sentence in the English criminal justice system. This blog post provides an overview of the research findings, access the full article here

In the English criminal courts it is mandated that an offender convicted of murder receive a mandatory life sentence. This has been the case since the abolition of capital punishment in 1965. The mandatory life sentence for murder has long served as a symbolic contract with the public that murders will be taken seriously and that consequently in all cases the most serious form of punishment will be imposed. However, over five decades after it was first legislated, a study involving interviews conducted in 2010 with members of the English criminal justice system highlights why there is a pressing need for the British government to consider abolishing the mandatory life sentence for murder.




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One of the key problems with the legislation of a mandatory life sentence for murder is that in practice a maximum life term does not actually mean a life served in prison. Given that offenders also receive a minimum term it is in fact very rare for an offender convicted of murder to actually serve a natural life term. For this reason, English criminal judges and legal counsel within this study commented that the mandated sentence ‘doesn’t mean what it says’ and that because of this ‘there is a huge public mistrust in sentencing because very few people understand what a life term actually means.’ The result of this is ensuing public confusion, over why murderers with a life sentence are released after serving only their minimum term, which may be 15, 18, 20 years. Consequently, the mandatory sentence imposed to uphold public confidence in sentencing may actually serve the opposite purpose in practice – to decrease confidence in the justice system.

In October 2001 the mandatory life sentence for murder was thrust into the spotlight after the Court of Appeal reduced Tony Martin’s murder conviction to manslaughter, and subsequently his previously imposed life sentence to five years.  Tony Martin had been convicted in April 2000 for the murder of 16-year-old house burglar, Fred Baras. The case received significant media attention and generated public discussion surrounding the viability of one sentence for all offenders convicted of murder.

Whilst over ten years have past since the Martin case, the lessons learnt are still vivid in the minds of those working within the English criminal courts. Senior judges and legal counsel agree – the mandatory life sentence for murder fails to achieve justice on an individual case-by-case basis. In practical terms, how can one sentence distinguish between the myriad of circumstances within which murder is committed – for example, the cold-blooded execution style murder, the single punch murder and the mercy killing?

For this reason, in this study legal practitioners described the mandated life sentence as ‘too crude’, ‘too brutal’ whilst also recognising that it ‘creates problems’ in practice due to its inability to allow for discretion in sentencing.  

Emphasising their confidence in the senior members of the English judiciary who try murder cases – who they described as ‘vastly experienced’ – legal counsel in this study called for the abolition of mandatory life sentencing for murder so that judges can use their discretionary powers to impose a sentence that fits the offence committed. A much needed call for proportionality in sentencing.

However, convincing a political party to support abolishing the mandated sentence may prove to be the biggest hurdle yet. The majority of English judges and legal counsel interviewed expressed a sense of resignation over the continued legislation of the mandated life sentence for namely, political reasons. As one English criminal court judge in this study conceded, ‘we are never going to persuade any political party to adopt anything other than the mandatory life sentence for murder.’

Whilst mandatory life sentencing for murder has long been associated with ‘tough on crime’ political catch cries, it is time for politicians to evaluate its efficiency and come to realisation that in practice the mandated sentence impedes the achievement of justice in individual cases and may actually serve to decrease public confidence.

It may well be that now is the time for politicians to step up and listen – the message from this study and the numerous ones that go before it – is clear: the English law of murder would be better served by putting sentencing for murder in the hands of judges. Be brave; abolish the mandatory life sentence for murder.

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