Even though the public is aware that full-life tariffs are highly exceptional, the rhetoric of 'life for a death' remains seductive
Another interesting report on criminal justice, and another sane plan that will not come to pass. The debate that keeps our prisons packed makes the rational heart grow weary.
Of course it is right, as the Homicide Review Advisory Group argued yesterday, that not all murders are the same ? just compare a serial predator with an assailant in a pub fight gone wrong. Of course it follows that judges should be free to sentence in the light of the facts. And of course it is daft that their hands remain somewhat tied by a mandatory life sentence introduced in a deal to abolish hanging nearly 50 years ago. Within hours, however, No 10 and Labour alike demonstrated they were incapable of digesting these truths. Even though the public is well aware that real full-life tariffs are highly exceptional, the rhetoric of "life for a death" remains seductive. Despite Ken Clarke's professed desire to enhance judicial discretion, he recently announced there would soon be more, not fewer, mandatory terms ? with mandatory life extended from murder to other serious crimes for the first time.
The justice secretary took this retrograde step to secure a bigger prize, the abolition of New Labour's indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection (life terms in all but name). In principle, IPPs are an affront to justice because the presumption of liberty is withdrawn: prisoners serve their time and still have to prove they deserve freedom. In practice, the problems multiply. Firstly, because ? as human beings confronted with difficult decisions ? judges can be tempted to pass the buck. Passing an indefinite sentence allows them to do that, by shunting the question of how early an offender can safely be released towards the parole board. Consequently, some very short sentences were made indefinite and, although this practice has since been curbed, there are still inmates who have been trapped inside for years on the strength of a notional sentence of a few months. Demonstrating, from behind bars, that one poses no risk is never easy. It is impossible in a Kafkaesque world where cash-strapped prisons can tell inmates they are not dangerous enough to justify a costly risk-rating exercise at the same time as the parole board tells them they cannot be freed without it.
But this is the world we are in as Mr Clarke's bill wends its way through the Lords. Shamefully, Labour's Sadiq Khan has dug in for IPPs. It must be hoped that this is mere cynical posturing, not a serious signal of intent to unite with the Tory right to keep IPPs on the books. After promising he would not play politics by branding Ken Clarke soft, Ed Miliband needs to consider that a fight to preserve IPPs would stain his reputation into the indefinite future.