Mandatory life sentences for murder should end, Lord Woolf says

Lord Woolf Image copyright AFP

Mandatory life sentences should not be handed down for murder, former lord chief justice Lord Woolf has said.

The penal reform supporter said life prison terms are given "too frequently" by the courts.

He also called for "more precise" sentencing by judges.

Sentencing "inflation" - in response to public pressure - meant more people were spending longer in jail, putting more pressure on the penal system, Lord Woolf said.

He told BBC Radio 4's The World At One the frequency of the number of life sentences handed down is "unfortunate".

He added: "Sometimes a murder - it's still a murder - but it can be very much less serious than another murder.

"There may not be circumstances which excuse the killing, but there may be circumstances that describe a situation where a person was at the end of their tether, perhaps as a result of conduct for which they were in no way responsible.

"If you hit somebody intending to cause them serious injury and they fall down and hit their head [and die] and you didn't actually intend to murder them, then that is murder under our law. That has got to be dealt with now by a life sentence."

Lord Woolf, who led the inquiry into the 1990 Strangeways Prison riot, also said the public had become "conditioned" to expect heavy sentences.

"They've got ideas in their mind of what they should be and they don't realise just what the effect is of sentences keeping on increasing," he said.

"I think we have got to give a message to the courts who actually do the sentencing that they should do what they can to keep inflation out of the situation."

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