‘Whole life’ orders are not the answer

Even the most serious criminals must be offered the possibility of redemption.

Luke Gittos

Topics Politics UK

The Conservative Party is trying to make criminal justice a key plank of its General Election campaign. Last week it announced a new policy: that adults over 21 who commit a ‘premediated’ murder of a child would become more likely to receive a ‘whole life’ order, meaning they would usually spend the rest of their life in prison without being considered for parole.

Such orders are currently used, but only apply to exceptionally grave crimes, such as where an adult murders multiple children, or where a murder of a child is sexually motivated. The new proposal would make a whole-life sentence the starting point in cases of premeditated child murder.

This is all part of the Tories’ attempt to restore its status as the party of law and order. Since Boris Johnson became Tory leader he has announced plans to recruit 20,000 more police officers – though, as some have pointed out, this would merely cancel out previous Tory cuts to police numbers – and to introduce new powers to stop and search.

This particular policy on whole-life orders may look like the Tories’ least controversial. There are few crimes more serious than murdering a child. What’s more, introducing the requirement for premeditation would reflect that planning to kill is more serious than killing impulsively. We should, of course, have little sympathy for people who commit such crimes.

But there are reasons to object to the expansion of whole-life orders. Most importantly, because they undermine one of the important tenets of our justice system – that anyone, no matter how serious their crime, should have the chance to rehabilitate.

Currently, convicted murderers are automatically given a life sentence, but are entitled to be considered for parole after a particular period, which is set by the judge. This reflects the fact that, no matter how serious their crime, people should have the hope of one day being released.

For many killers, this will never happen. The parole board will continue to believe they pose a risk. Some may die in prison before their minimum term expires. But there is still something humane in the recognition that serious criminals can rehabilitate. This is undermined by whole-life orders, which render some criminals irredeemable.

Perhaps those who intentionally kill children are irredeemable. Perhaps they do not deserve the right to ever be considered for release. But even if we accept this, there are further questions that need to be answered, such as what constitutes ‘premeditation’.

It is not an easy thing to prove, particularly in an area like gang violence. If a defendant is over 21 and stabs a child under 16 in a confrontation, they could be treated in the same way as an older adult who kills multiple children. Now, these new sentences will just be a starting point, and, in any particular case, a judge may choose not to impose them. But they still pose very difficult questions.

Understandably, many will be concerned about killers not spending long enough in prison. But the problem with whole-life orders is that they are an entirely retributive punishment. They leave no room for even the possibility of redemption.

The most humane aspect of our justice system is that it recognises the human capacity to change. This is why our justice system is more functional than more punitive systems, such as that in the United States. Punishment is important. But it must always be balanced with humanity.

That does not mean we should be soft on the most serious offenders. There is a place for retribution in our system. But these sentences are not the answer.

Luke Gittos is a spiked columnist and author. His new book Human Rights – Illusory Freedom: Why We Should Repeal the Human Rights Act, is published by Zero Books. Order it here.

Picture by: Getty Images

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Marvin Jones

26th November 2019 at 3:35 pm

Unless one is protecting their family, home, from intruders, saving a life or defending themselves, taking a life must start at 25 years minimum. No excuses for age or mental problems, and longer for unmitigated murder. This should be drummed into their heads in school, so they know the score.

Jim Lawrie

30th November 2019 at 10:04 am

Why not just get rid of them?

kejadi kejadi

24th November 2019 at 2:52 pm

I am suffering form worst financial positions i have no money to pay rent or utility bills, My friend told me about this website for some money. I start broken hart but i was surprised to see the results. Now within a month i am making $125 per hour. I recommend all of you who want to make hand some earning to join the link……….golden.jobs67.com

Jim Lawrie

23rd November 2019 at 3:03 pm

“If a defendant is over 21 and stabs a child under 16 in a confrontation”. That is not a valid example, because in that case issues of self defence, provocation and willing participation would arise and murder charge would not be brought. We need what the Americans call the right to “stand your ground”.
We need to stop the emotive use of the word child. Child is under 12, a minor is under 16. At trial, either one, on the attack with a deadly weapon or holding one to supply for that purpose, must be classed as an adult.

michael savell

22nd November 2019 at 11:42 pm

The point about this whole life ruling is that it will be the younger murderer who suffers the longest punishment but it,is,in fact,he,who would more likely be the most contrite.I am 82,what would a life sentence mean to me if I planned,then committed a murder as opposed to some 16 year old whose blood came to boil while out drinking with his mates one night.15 year olds can be quite chunky types nowadays

Lord Anubis

23rd November 2019 at 7:28 pm

The seriousness of Homicide is overrated. Really, it just isn’t the worst type of offence as far as its impact on overall society is concerned. Obviously Serial/Mass killers scare the shit out of people, but these types of killer are very rare. Most homicides are personal and do not involve random strangers.

By contrast, an unrelenting multitude of minor offenses is utterly destructive to the fabric of society in a way that the occasional killing comes nowhere near close to being so.

I would be willing to give somebody who has killed but is also “Of previous good character” every chance of rehabilitation and parole. (Though these types of homicide are the minority. See note *) I do recognise that everybody has a breaking point, whilst I would not wish to condone or encourage people killing their mortal enemies, it is also the case that somebody who does so is unlikely to be a future risk to other random strangers.

I would however reserve the LWP sentence for the incorrigible repeat offender who already has two convictions for Burglary, Car theft (Etc) or even shoplifting, and has been caught committing a third!

These ARE the people who present a continuing risk to random third parties and the justice system releasing them after a short sentence (Or not even imprisoning them at all in the first place) to continue their campaigns of misery is utterly unacceptable.

So yes. I am a “Three Strikes” enthusiast. First offense, even a second offence. Serious rehabilitation should be made available. Third. You are out mate! And you will remain out until such time as you can demonstrate that you will no longer present a risk to others (And even then, you will still be on life licence and subject to recall)

(I would also reinstate the “Felony Murder” concept, perhaps not quite as capricious as the way it is applied in the US, but I would definitely have it on the statute book.)

( (Note *) It should be noted that the majority of homicides are committed by people who already have three or more previous convictions for other offenses. A simplistic analysis might suggest that a strictly enforced “Three Strikes” policy might well cut the homicide rate by in excess of 50%, possibly even by rather more!)

Marvin Jones

26th November 2019 at 3:30 pm

SO! you condone the first two crimes of this criminal, even if he has raped and murdered two women? These people must be made aware that taking a life, unless in self defence, to save someone else’s life or protecting your family and home from burglars, should carry a minimum 25 year sentence, longer for more serious crimes. Why the hell would you care for these mutants.

Steve Roberts

22nd November 2019 at 7:01 pm

Humans commit both good and evil actions. It does not make then inherently good or evil people, that would reduce our humanity to be predetermined, to be one of good or evil character ,immutable. The fact that our lives and actions are not immutable leaves open the possibility, after suitable punishment determined by society, to redemption and rehabilitation regardless of the heniousness of crimes committed.To deny that possibility is to actually to demean all our humanity while at the same time claiming the moral high ground against others we regard as inhuman, that’s a very conflicting and immoral position to take. It smells of revenge and only revenge.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to comment. Log in or Register now.