Hindley can never be a martyr

Lord Longford's sentimentality clouds the debate, says Geoffrey Wheatcr oft
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The Independent Online
IN THIS country we send far too many people to prison for far too long. Thirty years is a dreadful prison sentence, imprisonment for natural life, which Myra Hindley has just been told she faces, more dreadful still. Political cowardice, judicial harshness and tabloid vindictiveness together make reason and humanity very difficult. But if there is one thing which makes them harder still, it is the self-righteous asininity of those who champion Hindley. Lord Longford and David Astor consider thems elves penal liberals; with "liberals" like these to cloud the argument, who needs reactionaries?

The brutality of our penal policy is obvious enough. One person in 980 in England and Wales is in prison. This compares with one in 559 in the United States But it also compares with one in 1,838 in France, and one in 2,162 in Germany. Even those, like me, who have been recently burgled might wonder why this country needs to lock up proportionately more than twice as much of its population as the Germans do. Are they really so law abiding, are we really so lawless?

Further, terms of imprisonment in Britain have grown longer and longer. Their length has been encouraged by one of the worst legislative innovations of the 1980s: the prosecution's right to appeal against leniency of sentence. There must be an argument on the face of it for releasing anyone who has been in prison for three decades, whether Rudolf Hess or Myra Hindley.

Which is where Longford and Astor galumph in. In a letter to the Times last week, they argued that keeping her in prison is "treating someone as demonic - as the Jews were grotesquely treated in Germany, and as women called witches were once treated throughout Europe". "Grotesque" is indeed the word for this comparison. Jews were persecuted for being Jewish, "witches" for no reason at all. It is far-fetched to the point of derangement to compare their treatment with the imprisonment of a woman justly convicted for a crime which still chills the blood.

Lord Longford has been active on Hindley's behalf for years past, and he has continually used arguments as irritating as they are specious. He assures us that Hindley is a reformed character, that she is deeply penitent, and that she would never do wrongagain. If Lord Longford hadn't written an entire book called Humility one might wonder how much of that quality he himself possessed, at least the intellectual kind. How does he know that Hindley's penitence and harmlessness are authentic?

In any case, he clearly doesn't understand the purpose, and the morality, of law and punishment. Hindley's moral character today is irrelevant, just as it was when she was convicted. Under a rule of law you are punished not for what you are but for what you do. She could be the most saintly woman who ever lived except for her frolic on the Moors, and for that she should still be punished. Or she might be, in some sense, deeply wicked but she need not go to prison if she has not broken the law (and thereare plenty of people at liberty who are wicked).

Although deterrence may be a function of punishment, that should not be, ethically speaking, its primary purpose. Nor should the primary purpose be to protect the public by locking up those too dangerous to be at large, though, again, that is sometimes afunction. The purpose should particularly not be to reform a prisoner, an ideal which is an intolerable violation of his or her individual autonomy. It is foolish as well as cruel to have a penal regime which further brutalises prisoners, and they should by all means be given every opportunity to reform themselves. But it must be their own choice.

The first purpose of punishment is to punish, to inflict retribution, if you like, though there are better ways of putting it. Punishment validates the legal order. It enforces the underlying contract on which a rule of law rests. If he who breaks the law is not punished, then he who obeys it is cheated. In that sense the law against torturing children to death is not different in kind from the law against fraud or assault or dangerous driving. And someone like Hindley who has had the law upheld againsther after due process and a fair trial cannot complain of injustice.

She can complain of harshness or lack of clemency, but her case makes clemency almost impossible. Most of the usual considerations don't apply. She is not "being made an example of" in a deterrent sense. Deterrence really does work in the case of double parking, or even of calculated gangland killing, but not of something as esoteric and mercifully rare as Brady and Hindley's crime.

Their case raises important questions about the nature of justice in general and the function of parole or remission in particular. Is it right that one person who has behaved better, or more penitently, in prison than someone else who has committed exactly the same offence should suffer a lesser sentence? Reduce that principle to absurdity and you have that interesting form of Chinese penology, the conditional death sentence: if after 10 years in prison a convict is considered no longer an anti-social element, he can spend the rest of his life as a prisoner; if not, he is shot.

But the case presents a further challenge to us who oppose the death penalty. It is one thing no longer to hang murderers, on the grounds that that punishment is barbaric in itself; it is too easy to elide from that into a vague belief that all punishment is wrong. Punishment must sometimes be appropriately severe, to fit the crime, to express public anger and, in Hindley's case particularly, to respect the feelings of the victims' parents or other relatives.

Discussion of Myra Hindley's future is theoretical. What she was told on Thursday is not binding, but a Labour Home Secretary is no more likely than a Tory one to release her. Her case has only obscured the larger debate over crime and punishment. The lynch mob who want to string her up make that debate harder to conduct calmly and decently. But it isn't helped either by the addled sentimentality which treats her as a martyr.