David Cameron has insisted that British courts must retain the right to sentence the worst offenders to stay in prison until they die, despite a ruling by European judges.
Last year, the European Court of Human Rights upheld an appeal by three British prisoners against the ‘whole life’ sentences imposed on them for a combined total of 11 murders. The judges ruled that a prisoner who was denied any prospect of release was also being denied any opportunity to atone for his crimes and achieve rehabilitation.
But Mr Cameron said on Thursday: "There are some people who commit such dreadful crimes that they should be sent to prison, life should mean life and whatever the European Court has said we must put in place arrangements to make sure that can continue."
One option the Government is now considering is giving judges the power to pass prison sentences of 100 years or more, which would comply with the letter of the judges’ ruling because the person sentenced would qualify to have his case reviewed eventually.
The ruling by the European Court has angered people in Britain partly because it is seen as interfering in domestic affairs, and also because of the possibility that some people who commit horrific crimes will get off too lightly.
In October, a judge complained that the European court ruling prevented him from imposing a whole life tariff on Ian McLoughlin, who killed on his first day out on day release after spending 21 years in prison for a previous murder. Instead, McLoughlin, aged 55, was sentenced to a minimum of 40 years. The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, described the sentence as ‘unduly lenient.’
But Juliet Lyon, of the Prison Reform Trust, accused the Government of trying to "dodge complying with the Human Rights Act". She added: "What it risks is further inflation in sentencing. People serving life sentences are serving three years longer than they did 10 years ago."
There are currently 49 prisoners in England and Wales sentenced to ‘whole life’ terms. The longest sentence ever imposed in a British court, other than a life sentence, was 42 years, handed to the soviet spy, George Blake, in 1961. Much longer sentences are frequently passed in US courts. Last August, Ariel Castor, the bus driver who held three women prisoner in his home for a decade, was sentenced to 1,000 years.