100-year sentences deny perpetrators the chance of change - and allow us to forget their humanity

Much as we should be disgusted by their crimes, locking people up for a century will not make our country a safer place

Share
Related Topics

On Thursday, while most of the country was still hiding under the duvet eating chocolate for breakfast, the punitive populist wind continued to howl through the Ministry of Justice, getting whipped up into a sentencing storm by the Prime Minister. Last summer the European Court of Human Rights ruled that whole-life jail terms without the possibility of review amount to a breach of human rights following a controversial appeal lodged by three men serving such sentences. This widened the chasm between the UK government and the Strasbourg court, and led to this week’s pronouncement designed to circumnavigate the ruling by mooting 100-year sentences. Many commentators have noted that this is simply a whole life sentence without review by another name.

The ECHR did not suggest that those appealing should be released any time soon, and quite rightly so. But alongside having sentencing that reflects the gravity of the crime, to see real change we need a justice system that acknowledges the humanity of those it seeks to reform, however appalling the crime. Archie Bland discusses the importance of hope - that there is at least the possibility of release – in providing the incentive to live differently for those few (less than 50 people) currently serving whole life sentences. Alison Liebling, director of the Prisons Research Centre at Cambridge University's Institute of Criminology, comments in the article "You create this environment of no hope, no meaning," she says. "When you've ruled out the possibility of atonement, most of the ways out are dangerous."

These sentences deal with hideous, emotive crimes and I have no stomach for pretending otherwise. We need to examine our own attitudes as a starting point in unknotting the problem of how society deals with those who have so profoundly transgressed. Why is there currently an increase in punitive rhetoric and harsher sentencing, and what is the ideology that drives it?

Our sense of shame can stop us from finding better solutions to these profoundly complex problems. If we have 100-year sentences and in so doing make the perpetrator sufficiently ‘other’ to outside society, then we never have to look at the capacity for evil within ourselves. Or why I, for example, might need to call someone else a monster, or an animal, to make me feel better about myself because - compared to a murderer - I’m not too bad. As a result of our own shame at not being good enough, we are often happy to pour our energies into shaming others instead. For a play I was writing I read about Rose West’s crimes: nausea and weeping followed, which I know is nothing at all compared to what her victims’ friends and families have suffered. Her inconceivable actions seemed inhumane. And yet she was human. At some level, she was human like me. She, Jeremy Bamber and those who killed Lee Rigby are unrelentingly human. It is mightily difficult to appreciate that, but Sociologist Dr Brené Brown frequently states ‘Empathy is the antidote to shame’.

A year after her husband was killed in a random act of violence on Christmas eve, Maureen Greaves spoke eloquently of forgiving those involved alongside her desire to see justice done and proper sentences passed. She refused to call the perpetrators evil, instead saying they committed an evil act. In so doing, she courageously refused to publicly shame them, acknowledged their humanity and their capacity to change. If we persist in labelling people – and not their actions – as evil or inhumane, we cannot hope to see a reduction in reoffending and fewer victims, because we’re telling perpetrators that there is no hope, that their identity is that of evil forevermore thereby denying them of the possibility of change. We must get better at acknowledging the complexity of what it is to be human, in order to create the kind of justice system and communities that aid (re)habilitation, reduce reoffending and make this country a safer place to live.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: EWI / IWI Installer

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of design...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...

The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Management Accountant

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Manag...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Freeman, centre, with Lord Gladwyn, left, and Harold Wilson on the programme The Great Divide in 1963  

John Freeman was a man of note who chose to erase himself from history

Terence Blacker
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'