A member of the Scottish Parliament, unable to gain any support from colleagues outside his party, has launched as an individual member a consultation for a Proposed Whole Life Custody Bill (Scotland): https://www.parliament.scot/gettinginvolved/111685.aspx Along with numerous other groups, we have submitted a response to the consultation strongly opposing this senseless, cynical attempt. A summary of our submission follows, and the full response will be available on the Government’s website in due course.
As a collective who have spent many years bearing witness to and researching the harms which imprisonment causes to individuals, families and communities, the proposed whole life custody bill makes no sense on legal, moral, ethical, political and social policy grounds. There is no evidence presented that this sentence would improve the safety of individuals or communities, and there is strong evidence to suggest that it would be both inhumane and challenging to implement. We would also strongly argue that there is no need for this proposed sentence, as it adds nothing to existing law.
Scotland already has and makes use of extensive powers of “whole life” punishment. One example of this is by ordering punishment parts (the minimum period of a sentence to be sent in prison) that cannot be completed within one’s life span, such as the recent example of a 69 year old man receiving a 37 year punishment part (Angus Sinclair the so-called World’s End killer). Scotland also allows life sentences for crimes less than murder through its Order for Lifelong Restriction. England abolished its analogous discretionary life sentence, the Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP), under a Conservative Government on the grounds that it was inhumane and unjust. Let’s stop talking about Scotland as being “soft” on punishment, and start evidencing the impact of Scotland’s use of existing sentencing law.
The proposal aims to resurrect the death penalty by another name. Whole life custody, without the possibility of parole, has been described as sentencing a person to “death by incarceration”. As researcher Ashley Nellis points out, such a sentence means “the government has decided how and where the individual will die. When looked at from this view, LWOP is not so different from the death penalty.”
A sentence without hope or end is incompatible with human dignity and just society. Hope, and specifically the hope of release, is central to construction of both a sense of self and also human dignity. Denying a person the possibility to reintegrate is incompatible with human dignity. A sentence of this type has no place in Scottish society.
A damaging direction for penal policy, moving Scotland even further out of step with Europe and closer to a US norm of ‘perpetual punishment’. In 2008 the Scottish Government embarked on a major reform effort (via the McLeish Commission) that documented how prison populations are harmful and damaging not just people in prison but for the communities and society outside of them. The proposed sentence would reverse an aspiration of progress, and entrench a worrying regressive trend: Scotland already leads Europe with the highest proportion of its prison population serving life sentences. This is not the result of more crime or a higher homicide rate, but of sentencing and politicisation of crime policy, of which this consultation is a sad example. Overall this proposal reflects a deep ignorance of current sentence and prison trends and a sad opportunism of going after easy targets – the worst of the worst individuals – that provides cover for a broader lack of ideas and willingness to work hard towards safe, inclusive and thriving communities.
Knock on effects of longer sentences and a growing prison population. The consultation reflects an unacceptable level of ignorance about the upward drift in sentence lengths in Scotland trends and their effects. Those sentenced to prison are spending longer periods in custody and this has knock on effects for the overall size of prison populations and the problems related to this. This is because a small number of very long serving prisoners has a huge impact on availability of cells, squeezing space. The US thought they could build their way out of this problem. Even the most confirmed tough on crime lawmakers across the Atlantic have now renounced this approach.
The introduction of whole life sentences would have negative implications for all of those who come into the criminal justice system, for another reason. This rebranding exercise mainly acts to increase a rhetoric of ‘othering’ all those in the criminal justice system, simplifying the world into “us” law abiding citizens and “them” horrible criminals. These labels are not based on a reality of people who are all good or bad, and we believe people in Scotland deserve better than to be distracted by these patronising debates at a time when crime is at an historic low, and there are much more urgent matters at hand to ensure the country’s security, safety and success.
People can and do change; sentences without end undermine this. It is particularly challenging to devise a prison regime that is both constructive and safe for those serving a sentence of life without parole (and those working with them), because this group of prisoners have no incentive of progression and “nothing left to lose”. Moreover, research conducted in the US by Marion Vannier suggests the people serving sentences of life without parole may be considered low priority for employment or other opportunities within the prison, leaving their efforts to change poorly supported and often unacknowledged (Vannier, 2016). Lengthening sentences, with a whole life term being the extreme case, may actually reduce the chances that the sentence will be spent productively and constructively.