“Life Means Life” Prison Sentences Receive the Go-Ahead in England and Wales

“Life Means Life” Prison Sentences Receive the Go-Ahead in England and Wales

The British government scored a popular victory against the European Court of Human Rights last month when the British Court of Appeals ruled “whole-life” prison sentences legal.

The legality of such sentences, intended for the most heinous murders, has been in dispute since July 2013, when the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights decided, in the Vinter case, that “whole-life” sentences without hope or possibility of release, contravene Article 3 of the convention, which prohibits “inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The sentencing of a number of convicted murders has been on hold ever since, pending review by the British Court of Appeal, including those of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebwale, who were found guilty of brutally murdering British soldier Lee Rigby on a South London street in May 2013.

On February 18, 2014, the Court of Appeal rejected the European Court of Human Rights’ decision, arguing that Section 30 of the Crimes (Sentences) Act of 1997 allows a life-sentence prisoner to appeal to the Home Secretary, under exceptional circumstances, for release on compassionate grounds, thus providing the hope or possibility of release required by the Court of Human Rights, and confirming the legality of “whole-life” sentences.

With an election approaching, the ruling conservatives are in competition not only with their traditional opponents, the left-leaning Labour party, but also with the right-wing, nationalist United Kingdom Independence Party, whose anti-European Union, anti-immigration policies are popular with voters, and threaten to split the conservative vote, handing victory to Labour.  In response, the conservatives have been shifting further to the right and adopting populist policies in the hope of winning back voters under the current Home Secretary, Chris Grayling.  They have been increasingly tough on crime, and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has earlier promised a renegotiation of the United Kingdom’s role within the European Union, and even a public referendum on Britain’s continued membership.

The February Appeal Court ruling is thus a double victory for the government, pairing a re-affirmation of its tough-on-crime doctrine with a triumph over unwelcome European interference.

While most of our reporting here at the Prison Law Blog focuses on American criminal justice, we feel it important to report on such news from around the world so as to give our readers a global perspective on crime and punishment.  And since we have yet to comment on the issue of whole-life sentences in the United Kingdom, allow us to do so now.  As a matter of public, Prison Law Blog politics, we strenuously object to any term of life imprisonment unless under the most extreme of circumstances, and even then, only to the most limited degree.  There are people in the world who society needs to be protected from, but to suggest that there are many who must be locked up for the rest of their natural-born lives is plainly political pandering and inhumane to boot.

To learn more about Britain’s “whole-life” debate, visit http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/18/english-law-whole-life-sentences-lord-thomas-strasbourg.