It’s time to redefine what constitutes a “life sentence”

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February 9, 2013 by Nash Riggins

Nicola Edgington proves a grim example of just how ineffective the UK’s criminal rehabilitation system truly is.

The 32-year-old woman, who was convicted of violently killing her own mother in 2006, was ordered to be detained indefinitely under the UK’s Mental Health Act; however, she was then released in 2009 to live in the community under ‘close monitoring’ by healthcare workers. Two years later, Edgington pinned down a 59-year-old stranger who was walking to work and slit her throat with a butcher’s knife.

Unfortunately, this tale is anything but unprecedented. In May 2012, 65-year-old David Cook – who had been recently paroled after 21 years for the murder of a Sunday school teacher – used a television flex to murder his 64-year-old neighbour.

According to Home Office statistics released in January 2012, over 30 convicted murderers killed again after being freed from prison between 2001 and 2011 – with 29 people with homicide convictions going on to commit murder, and six committing manslaughter. Given these chilling statistics, one can’t help but wonder: why does the government allow convicted killers to go free at all?

The answer to this question is a difficult one; however, it undeniably revolves around the very sensitive notion of ‘second chances’. Under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, judges are able to set “starting points” from which a convicted murderer serving a life sentence will be eligible to receive parole. Most typically, the average UK killer serves around 15 years before they’re eligible for their first parole hearing. Yet how many times must the leniency of this humane practice be proven unwise?

Sure, the UK’s prison system should seek to reform criminals, rather than just lock them in a hole; however, evidence suggests that the state’s understanding of the term “life sentence” is utterly skewed. Admittedly, the episode of Nicola Edgington can be rationalised as a somewhat special case, as her mental health was undeniably a driving factor in her crimes; therefore, she may or may not have deserved an additional level of sympathy and support. Yet even so, under the Mental Health Act Ms Edgington was ordered to be detained indefinitely – what part of “indefinitely” did her carers not quite understand?  

The Ministry of Justice maintains that they “do everything [they] can to ensure that the public is protected from offenders, but sadly risk can never be eliminated entirely.” This answer is just as naïve as it is lazy. Sure, it’s impossible for the government to prevent an innocent bystander from being murdered by anybody on the street – but on the flip-side, it is completely within their power to ensure that no member of the public can be killed by someone who’s already been found guilty of murder.

It’s very noble that the UK so strongly believes in giving offenders a second chance – after all, to err is human. Yet it’s high time that England’s judges wake up and realise that some mistakes are substantially greater than others, and subsequently deserve less sympathy. The government’s childish view that every convicted killer will change their spots after 15 years in prison is costing innocent people their lives, and it’s time to implement a tighter definition on just what constitutes a life sentence.

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