Transparency in justice demands sentences that fit the crime

Transparency in justice demands sentences that fit the crime

by Liam Kerr
article from Monday 7, October, 2019

URGENT ACTION must be taken to restore public trust in the justice system, including the abolition of automatic early release for all short and long-term prisoners.

We have all met victims and their families who have expressed disbelief and horror at what they feel were less than clear sentences. Victims rarely understand the justice system and we know that they find the court process difficult and intimidating. But having got to the end of that process and secured a guilty verdict, at least some victims may find some peace and a sense of justice. But then, only halfway through their attacker’s prison sentence, they discover their assailant is back on their streets, in their community and in their public space.

Imagine how destabilising that is; how vulnerable that victim would feel? But that is the reality, because every criminal sentenced to under four years in jail is automatically released halfway through the sentence.

It happens without regard to either the offenders’ behaviour or whether rehabilitation has occurred. The Parole Board doesn’t even get a say. And to add insult to injury, it is usually with zero supervision.

Offenders walk free without even the obligation to check-in with a social worker. This re-traumatises victims and puts our communities at risk. No wonder a majority of Scots think the justice system is too lenient. Don’t forget prisoners sentenced to four years or more are automatically let out six months earlier than their full sentence.   

I think we should be up front with people and say that if a criminal is sentenced to three years in prison, they will serve three years in prison. By abolishing automatic early release we can prioritise rehabilitation in the prison environment. The justice committee heard just this week about how effective care, work and education can be in the prison system. The SNP have promised this in the past, and they have yet to follow through.

As an extension to that principle, we also think it is crucial that the courts are completely upfront about what a sentence actually means when it is handed down. It is surely wrong to say a criminal has been given a six-year jail sentence if the truth is that they may be released after only three years. When a criminal is spotted on the high street substantially earlier than expected it is just going to anger the public and re-traumatise victims.

Surely it is better for everyone if courts were to label a sentence as accurately as possible – by calling it a three-year sentence with the possibility of further time depending on conduct and rehabilitation. Or if what is currently labelled a four-year sentence with automatic release, would be renamed a two-year sentence with the possibility of continued imprisonment.

And what of “life imprisonment”? What a misnomer.

When the 34-year-old killer of nine-year-old Scott Simpson was sentenced to “life imprisonment” – the mandatory sentence – what the judge really meant was a punishment part of a minimum period in prison then the possibility of coming out. His punishment part was originally 25 years but that was reduced to 20 years. His first application for parole was refused but we – or more concerningly – the family can expect further applications next year.

Or consider when a judge told Paige Doherty’s killer that he was getting “life imprisonment” then immediately followed that up with a punishment part of 27 years, after which he would be eligible to get out. This was later reduced to 23 years.

Or examine the case of the vile killer of Alesha MacPhail, whose punishment part has been reduced to 24 years. He’ll be younger than me when he is eligible to be released.

The reality is that a “life sentence” is really a lengthy jail term to be followed, assuming the prisoner keeps his nose clean, with a second chance of life on the outside. A second chance that has been denied to the victims.

All I am asking for is that we jettison the terms ‘life imprisonment’ and ‘life sentence’ when over 70 per cent of such prisoners spend less than 15 years in prison.

I think the solution is simply to introduce honesty and transparency in what is being handed down. What is currently called ‘life imprisonment’ could be renamed as an “indefinite” or “unfixed” sentence, with the possibility of release after the minimum ‘punishment part’ has elapsed. Because if judges aren’t given the option to send people like Alesha MacPhail’s killer to prison for life, then at least let’s remove the misleading language of “life imprisonment” from the sentence.

Finally, I must be clear that it is right that prisoners get the opportunity to earn early release. We must seek to rehabilitate.  Therefore conditional, risk-assessed, and closely monitored early release has an important role to play in ensuring that an offender is ready to be liberated.

However, for the most vile criminals who commit the most appalling acts, it is my belief that life should mean life. There should be no chance of release.

As demonstrated by the cases above, the fact is that unlike in England and Wales, Scottish Judges simply cannot hand out a sentence to ensure that the very worst murderers and sexual offenders are never released to offend again.

I hear those who claim that you can “engineer” a ‘life imprisonment’ by setting a punishment part that is over the criminal’s life expectancy, but what is transparent about that? Setting a punishment part and hoping it won’t expire before someone dies? That is not even fair on the criminal let alone the victims!

The reality is, only where you have people like Peter Tobin (pictured) who was in his 60s when sentenced, is there pretty much no doubt they’ll never be leaving prison.

Whole Life Sentences are clear and unambiguous – a very rarely used but vital option that we should give to Scottish judges. Victims, like the Stewart family, have given their support to my Whole Life Bill because they are angry about the confusion, the uncertainty and the permanent vulnerability they face.

Everyone should support my Bill to become law and to give judges this power, just as in the rest of the United Kingdom. We need to restore public trust in the justice system.

In summary, I think we can do it by: abolishing automatic early release for all short-term and long-term prisoners, by using genuine language around sentencing so victims, families and communities know what to expect, and by at least having the debate on whole life sentences that the public have signalled they would like to see.

Following the vote, I am disappointed with the SNP’s decision to allow a lack of transparency in our justice system, but will continue to advocate for justice and clarity for the victim’s and their families.

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