Murder: Life sentence unjust, says lawyers' group

A prison door Mandatory life sentences for murder replaced the death penalty in 1965

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Mandatory life sentences for murder in England and Wales and the system for setting minimum terms are unjust and outdated, a legal experts' group says.

The Homicide Review Advisory Group, made up of judges, academics and former QCs, says the system does not allow for sentences to match individual crimes.

The mandatory life sentence replaced the death penalty in 1965.

But Peter Neyroud, a former chief constable, said the public did not want killers treated with more leniency.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said it had no plans to abolish the mandatory life sentence for murder. "The most serious crimes deserve the most serious sentences," he said.

The Homicide Review Advisory Group said a so-called mercy killing attracted the same mandatory life penalty as serial killings and it said it wanted sentencing for murder to be discretionary.

Its report builds on research last year which claims the public may support reforming the penalty for murder to make life imprisonment the maximum sentence rather than mandatory.


It claims that "with appropriate education" the public could develop "in the general direction long favoured by legal experts and the judiciary".

But Mr Neyroud, a former member of the sentencing guidelines council, said: "The public were very confused about murder sentencing and in fact regularly thought that the sentences for murder were too lenient, so I'm not sure that you can then leap to the conclusion that they're then ready for what would be quite a dramatic... and I suspect viewed as a reduction in seriousness."

The Homicide Review Advisory Group claim the mandatory life sentence was a compromise arrived at to ensure the abolition of the death penalty made its way through both Houses of Parliament.

It argues that the indefinite nature of a life sentence - which may or may not involve a life behind bars - is unfair and incomprehensible.

The starting point for a minimum term to be served for less serious murders is 15 years.

Offenders are released on life licence, which means they can be recalled to prison at any time during the rest of their life, if they breach the terms of their licence.

The report urges that the time has come for a move to fixed sentences for murder as with any other individual crime.

That would allow the exact circumstances of offences to be properly reflected by the courts, it says.

The Justice Secretary Ken Clarke recently announced plans to extend mandatory life sentences for many other crimes as part of a plan to do away with indeterminate sentences.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    This has been argued by "legal experts" for years and always has the same response from politicians, that being "No chance." Not because they think it's wrong, but because they know it will destroy their chances of re-election, hence the under-the-table watering down of the Life Sentence. Ken Clarke will never put this through after his comments about the seriousness of certain cases of rape.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    Yes, unjust and a breach of their human rights. It is not their fault, but the fault of society. The result of a lack of education, caring or opportunities. We should provide education, training and grants to help them integrate better into society, forgive them for their mistakes and give them a second (or third or fourth) chance, perhaps a day-trip to a theme park or a holiday in the sun.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    The mental element for murder is either intent to kill or intent to cause GBH which results in death. So if I hit you in the stomach, intending to hurt you, and by accident your appendix is ruptured and you die, that is murder and an automatic life sentence. It has been estimated that half or more of all people in prison for murder had no intent to kill. Which is why the system must change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    The legal system in this country is like the EU-we sign up for one thing & end up with something completely different.
    When the death sentence was abolished the public were led to believe that murderers would spend the rest of their lives in jail.
    Now we regularly see them released after serving a few years

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    I think this is a good move - remember noone has said it will make things more lenient. As Chris Rock once said, 'anyone who makes up their mind before hearing the issue is a fool!'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    what is unjust taking some's life please justice needs to prevail with no compromise may be under certain cirmustaces in which the murder took place that can provide just

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    David Attenburgh has regularly said that every problem on Earth is caused by overpopulation. Cull the scum and make more room for everything else. Execution of murderers is a green policy! (As long as the method of execution is carbon neutral, of course.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Has the judiciary forgotten that murder already carries the death penalty for the victim, and a life sentence for his or her relatives?

    A conviction for murder shows that the killing was both premeditated and intentional. Of course some murderers are worse than others, but a life sentence is the least that any of them deserve.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    I don't understand how this will make a great deal of difference anyway. 'Life' hardly ever actually means life. Too often we hear of people sentenced to life in prison and out within 20 or even 10 years. If we are giving the life sentence that is exactly what is should mean, they should die in prison!

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Life should mean the rest of your life. Simple.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Nothing justifies taking someone else's life - and I would say, for the crime of murder, life sentence is a mild one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    On the face of it I can see where they are coming from on this one. The problem for me is that if you leave the decision in the hands of judges alone they will exhibit sheer idiocy, as they are prone to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    If politicians had the moxie to bring back capital punishment in our bad comedy of a justice system then we wouldn't have over crowding in prisons, or people commiting all manner of crimes willynilly

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    People will be murdered regardless on the sentencing be it life in prison or hanging.

    Even where murders know the consequence will be their entire family will be killed in retribution.

    An eye of an eye has never worked - but it does may some people feel good.

  • Comment number 75.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    A doctor is faced with a dying patient in agony trapped in burning building. He knows that if he lets the patient go unconscious he will die but soon he will die of the fire or blood loss. He gives him a possibly lethal dose of pain killer to block the pain but the patient drifts into sleep and dies of the high dose of pain killer.
    Murder? Probably in law. Life sentence? Judges should judge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Whether it's the death penalty, or a long term in prison, the real problem is that none of these are deterrents as the perpetrators do not believe they will be caught.

    However, if these 'legal experts' really believe that public opinion would ever be with them on this, they are completely detached from reality. Justice is for the people by the people. The judiciary exercise our will, not theirs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    63.vince - Define Normal

    Fixing something that is fundamentally broken takes time and a lot of investment, which is already taking place with very little success. Out of every 25 serious offenders you will be lucky to reform one of them in terms of the way they perceive things

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Unjust? Oh please. You get sentenced to life in this country and you're out in 15-20 years. Disgraceful. If you take a life you don't deserve to have your own. Mercy killings are completely different; taking a life because someone asked you to or because they are in immense pain should be handled differently. Killing someone because you could? Sorry, I don't want you wandering the streets anymore.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    I dont believe in the dealth penalty whichever way it is carried out. However there has to be a penalty for the act of murder. Life should mean life without parole, and although not a common occurrence any miscarriage of justice could be rectified if it comes to light without any further loss of life. Wont be a deterrent for some but the public should have protection from serious offenders.


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