From this week on, that well-worn mantra ‘life means life’ becomes a reality. The pursuit of whole life sentences for the most heinous murderers has been a political obsession of past home secretaries, with Both Michael Howard and Jack Straw, for example, insisting that the now deceased Myra Hindley remained behind bars for life. And now David Blunkett has finally had his way, and judges will have to consider ‘whole life’ sentences for child killers, terrorists and multiple murderers when they use the new stiffer sentencing framework contained in the Criminal Justice Act 2003.
“Murder is the most serious and abhorrent of crimes”, the Home Secretary said over the weekend. “The effect that such tragic loss of life has on individuals, families and whole communities is immeasurable. Parliament has agreed the new framework, which means that the most dangerous and evil people in our society will stay in prison for longer.”
As well as ‘whole life’ becoming the starting point for those considered to be the most dangerous criminals, judges will be obliged to look at 30-year sentences for those killers who target on-duty police or prison officers, contract killers and those motivated by race, religion or sexual orientation. A judge has to follow the Blunkett ‘principles’, or else spell out his reasons for departing from them in open court.
“These principles arise not out of any lack of confidence in the judiciary, but out of the special significance of the offence of murder and the need to ensure that the framework for the sentencing for murder is set by Parliament and incorporates an element of democratic accountability,” Blunkett assured the public.
Delicately put – but last year the Home Secretary was more robust when he reminded judges of their place in the greater scheme of things. “I’m putting the situation back to what most sensible people thought it should be, which is that Parliament lays down the rules and the judges apply them,” he said. The Bar Council put it even more bluntly when they accused him of “trying to institutionalise the grip of the executive around the neck of the judiciary”.
Certainly, the new ‘principles’ are strikingly at odds with Lord Woolf’s own more tentative ‘guidelines’, which were only published in 2002 and which recommended as a starting point 15 or 16 years for the most serious murders, including contract killings and multiple murders. The Lord Chief Justice also said that, in exceptionally grave cases, there should be no minimum period set, allowing for the prospect of an eventual review of the sentence and the possibility of release.
While Woolf did not comment at the time, some judges went on the record to vent frustration at ministers trying to curb their discretion. In a letter to The Times, retired Law Lord Lord Ackner warned that the Home Secretary’s attempts to “bludgeon” judges was “doomed to failure”, as they would retain the last word in sentencing. What would happen, when push came to shove and the Home Office demanded that a murder should carry 30 years and the judges impose 10? All that ministers could do was put pressure on the Attorney-General to appeal to the Court of Appeal, which Lord Ackner believed would back the judge anyway. The Law Lord also predicted that judges would ignore the new guidelines. “They can, and I think they should, and they would,” he predicted.