Too soon to set Hindley free

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Myra Hindley is not the worst criminal of this century, but she is one of the most frightening. The horrors of Rwanda, of the Khmer Rouge or the Cultural Revolution were all collective. They took place against a background of war, or of huge conv ulsionsdestroying society.

Myra Hindley's crimes took place in settled, suburban England. They have an irreducibly personal gratuitous quality. Even if she did not herself take an active part in the murders, no one made her lure small children to death by torture. No one made her conceal the knowledge of two of these crimes for years. Any consideration of her case has to start from revulsion, and from the knowledge that this revulsion is more than justified. If she died tomorrow, she would not be mourned.

So at first sight it is difficult to see why Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has a problem about whether to consider her release. Yet he does, and for reasons that go to the heart of penal policy. A life sentence, in English law, does not mean being thrown away to rot until you die. Nor should it. A prison sentence has at least three functions: to deter, to punish, and to reform. These objectives will often conflict, but all must be present to some degree, even when the woman sentenced is Myra Hindley.

If she were totally incapable of reflection on what she did, she should be in a mental hospital, like Ian Brady. If she has enough sanity to live in a normal prison, she has enough sanity to begin to grasp the enormity of her crimes, and, perhaps, to re

p ent of them. But even if she were to have repented wholeheartedly of all her crimes, that would not be a sufficient reason to release her. In one sense, only the time served after a prisoner has repented and attempted reform can be regarded as punishment . In Hindley's case there is the complicating factor that if she ever were released, she would probably be lynched soon afterwards.

But our criminal justice system must be able to treat her as it treats all other transgressors. She should not be released now. But neither should the Home Secretary announce that she can never be released. That decision must be made afresh every year.