Should a life sentence mean a life in prison? The Nottingham Debating Union were asking this question on 19th February, watched by a packed out audience who turned up for the last controversial debate of the year. After the outcome where 161 students voted against the motion, 77 in favour and 30 abstaining, Impact caught up with some of the speakers who explained their views.
Moya Griffiths – Proposition and mother of a murder victim
Could you explain your argument briefly?
I represent a lot of people who have lost a loved one. We believe that if you are prepared to take a life then you can fully anticipate losing your liberty. Our campaign is ‘life for a life’. The victims do not get a fair crack of the whip as far as justice is concerned. It’s been proven over and over and over again. Now quite often a life sentence is dictated by ten years depending on the severity, but talking from my own personal experience, ten years is average. That is not a life sentence. We feel that when people are imprisoned even when they do come out after ten years, quite often they will re-offend. The statistics are there to back this up.
Do you think offenders can be too young to know what they’re are doing?
No. A child of seven will know the difference between right and wrong. I’m not saying that there can’t be extenuating circumstances; every case has to be judged on its own merits. For a normal 13 or 14 year old to kill or murder, I’m sorry no. You can quote cases, such as James Bulger; the two convicted killers knew exactly what they were doing, young as they were.
Is there room for redemption?
The proof is there, I’m not taking anything away from what Ben has achieved but the difference is years ago the sentencing was a lot harder, more penalised than what it is today. If it were to happen again, he wouldn’t necessarily go through that process, as he wouldn’t be behind bars for that period of time.
Should ‘life for a life’ extend to the death penalty?
We will never ever have capital punishment back in this country. If you ask any mother or father who have lost a child, initially the reaction would be, ‘Yes’ to capital punishment. But it’s not realistic. I, and others like me, believe in life for a life in prison.
Do you think the same sentence should apply to those who commit crimes of compassion and those who murder with malicious intent?
If it is a crime of compassion then I think it should be viewed quite differently. It’s not someone going out who thinks life is worthless or cheap. Life is cheap to a lot of people – it’s meaningless to them. Those are the people who need to be put imprison and made to stay there.
Ben Gunn – Opposition and served a life sentence
Can you outline your argument briefly?
There’re essentially two halves to any serious sentence – the tariff is the ‘punishment’ aspect, then anything additional is supposedly to protect society. If, say, you kill ten people during your punishment, then I have no particular problem with an extension of a sentence as there can be a reasonable case that you will harm others upon your release. My tariff was ten years, though I ended up doing thirty-two –some people are kept in for the sake of punishment, and they pose no risk whatsoever to society after serving their tariff. The concept of ‘murder’, as an example of a life sentence, is far too broad to warrant a blanket punishment.
Do you think the structure of the criminal justice system contributed to your redemption, or was it entirely self-induced?
I think it was brought about entirely by my response to the inherent abuses of power within the system. There are no redeeming features to the system. Who’s to say that I reached a stage of full reform when I did, other than myself? When I reached the ten-year stage of my sentence, I began to really think ‘okay, this is it. I’m reformed.’ But it’s out of your hands, as the criminal justice system is not a ‘pathway’ to achieve this. It is vigorously punishment-oriented, which leads to the neglect of a crucial pre-requisite of re-joining society.
Did you feel, at any point, as though the debate was moot as none of the other panelists have been in prison?
No – anybody can obviously have an opinion! Criminal justice is a constant social question. Some, including a member of tonight’s opposition, tend to offer undue, uninformed insights into prison life. But generally, no.
As a supporter of the objectives of the Howard League for Penal Reform, do you feel satisfied at the amount of influence it has over government policy?
Difficult times, I think, for penal reform groups across the board. Many perspectives influence government, but some ministers are more amenable to influence and some are open to the possibility of debate. However, this is predominantly an ideological argument. There will always be difficult times.
Philip Davies – Proposition and Conservative MP
Could you say in a few sentences, what your argument is?
Firstly we should be more honest about sentences we hand out in court. Currently over 7000 prisoners are serving life sentences, but only 43 of them are going to spend the rest of their lives in prison. To me, that’s fundamentally dishonest. Secondly, the public have to be protected, if you let out dangerous criminals, a certain proportion of them will kill again.
Is prison reform or punishment?
Well, it depends who’s going into prison. Prison was created in the first place because they’d committed such serious crimes, the only thing to do with them was to send them there. That’s the whole point of prison; it’s to punish them, and to prevent some from committing other offences. For those people that are going to leave prison, there’s a focus on rehabilitating them. For me, the people I wouldn’t try to rehabilitate are the people who were convicted of serious murders; I don’t think there’s any justification in releasing them.
I’ve heard that you support the death penalty. Would you agree with Ben being hung or sent to the chair?
Well his is a slightly separate case, because I believe that he was 14 at the time. You shouldn’t necessarily give everyone the same sentence for the same crime, maybe we should differentiate between different types of murder, which would recognise the age when the murder was committed. But general murder, yes.
At the moment the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old. Is that too young?
No. I think people should be held responsible for the crimes that they commit. It’s not a question of are they too young to be punished, absolutely not, he was old enough to be punished. The question is what will be the appropriate punishment, and I certainly wouldn’t have any problem with Ben being kept in prison for the rest of his life. I’m not sure I’d want to give a 14 year old boy a death sentence then.
So do you think there’s a rehabilitation process then when they’re young?
Well, you saw that with people like Venebles and Thompson who murdered Jamie Bulger. I think they were eleven at the time, then they were let out of prison after about ten years. That to me is totally unacceptable. They maybe didn’t deserve the death penalty at that age, but they certainly should have been kept in prison a hell of a lot longer. Again, I wouldn’t have a problem if they’d been kept in prison for the rest of their lives. There may have been an argument for releasing them at some point, but not until a lot later.
What do you think British public’s opinion of a ‘life for a life’ is?
We’ve had opinion polls on it. Somewhere in the region of 70% believe that life should mean life. I did a poll of my constituents and something like 87% said that life should mean life and that people should serve the sentence handed down by the court in full. It seems to me that I’m with the majority of the public; the majority of the public wasn’t necessarily represented here tonight.
Wolf McFarlane, Will Hazell and Emily Shackleton