Rehabilitation or Retribution: Should Britain be a society of second chances?

“A Victory for Evil” is how this week’s ruling by the ECHR, that life sentences without possibility of parole breached human rights law, was described by Tory MP Priti Patel.  Other commentators were similarly measured, with Dominic Raab branding it evidence of Strasbourg’s “warped moral compass”. The comments section of the right wing blogosphere has also been as grimly predictable as one might imagine, with discussions ranging from the outrage that prisoners get a choice of meals to lengthy descriptions about various methods of torture. All in all it’s not been quite the reaction we could have hoped for to a review that, ultimately, is about defending basic human rights.


It wouldn’t be hard to imagine that the vast majority of politicians and the public will find this move disappointing though. But then this is the view of people in a country in which the majority would apparently wish to reinstate the death penalty; so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Philip Johnston argues in The Telegraph that this represents a blow to the ‘contract’ agreed with the public when capital punishment was abolished, and this is not likely to be far off the mark. The fundamental issue is that the British public seems to still widely consider sentencing to be either primarily or entirely about retribution and punishment rather than public safety and rehabilitation. I don’t believe there is any case to be made that defends this approach or defends the policy of mandatory life imprisonment.

It might be argued, for instance, that sentencing should be a form of punishment in order to somehow balance out the injustice done to the victim. That regardless of the danger of the prisoner or potential remorse for their crimes, they must suffer so that the outraged public can feel satisfied. This of course is the same argument one might use for the death penalty itself. It’s both a dangerous and arbitrary argument however. Some people may wish a great amount of harm on the perpetrators, some may just want to know it can’t happen to other people ever again, some may wish for the death penalty. In any case, the likelihood of the relatives or friends of a victim, or the public, actually being satisfied with the punishment, when punishments are issued by mandate, are slim; and even the harshest punishment ultimately still won’t undo the crime that’s been committed.

It’s of course natural for people to feel anger at someone who has  committed the most immoral kind of action, but we already accept the premise that there are limits to what can be done in sentencing, however serious the crime and whatever the view of the victim or their families. We don’t, for instance, allow amputations or burning or torture. A life sentence with no possibility of release may seem like a satisfactorily sufficient sentence, but ultimately it’s arbitrary. If the prisoner cannot, or would not, harm someone again, what difference would a handful of years extra in worse living conditions do, decades down the line, for the satisfaction of public justice? If the measure of sentencing is primarily to appease this public rage, then why not just follow the route of other countries and re-impose the most barbaric punishments imaginable? Surely that would satisfy rage even more.

There is also no reason to believe that ‘life means life’ would deter crime either.  Many murders are crimes of passion, or committed by the mentally ill, or by people under the influence of some substance or another. Some are by killers who don’t fear imprisonment or being caught at all. Some are by terrorists who might intend to die themselves or desire to be caught in order to promote a message. Some are by members of gangs for whom the potential gains of serious criminal activity are worth the risk of prison and possibly hold less fear than the dangerous life they already live.

To put the situation in context, the UK currently has 50 prisoners serving life sentences with no possibility of parole. The United States, on the other hand, has 40,000. Louisianna State Prison alone has 3100. Despite all of this, the US still has a homicide rate four times higher than the UK (after adjusting for population difference).  While we obviously can’t know whether or not removal of whole life sentences would lead to even higher rates in the US, it certainly doesn’t seem, on the surface, to be doing that much in the way of deterring serious crime.

The case itself is of course in most instances academic. Removing life without parole sentencing does not mean removing life sentences. Most, if not all, of the 50 prisoners mentioned will still die in prison. The actual difference in the sentencing simply means that the prisoners have the possibility, at some stage, of having a review of their sentence and trying for parole. If they’re still considered dangerous, they’re not let out of prison, and rightly so.

The real crux of the argument comes down to the exceptions. The prisoner who has committed the most serious crime and then, later in life, fully and completely demonstrates remorse and is seen as no danger to the public, either through physical limitations or a completely different outlook, much like the case of Red from ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. It is at this point that we have to ask ourselves who we want to be. Do we want to be the society who genuinely believes in second chances, that there is good in everyone and that nobody is beyond saving, or do we want to be the society that looks to demonstrate our justice by causing as much suffering as possible to people who might well find the crime they committed decades in the past to be as hideous as we would find it. Perhaps more so. On the issue of sentencing we’ve had our cake and eaten it for a long time. We now need to decide whether we want to be on the side of rehabilitation or retribution.


  1. Interesting article – really well written and I agree with much of the basic sentiment.

    The only point where I’d diverge would be on the insistence upon deciding a society-wide policy, rather than placing the emphasis upon victims’ rights (a profoundly libertarian concept, in my opinion). I would personally want my “prospective murderer” to be given a life sentence with the possibility of parole, and specify so in my will.

    However, I don’t think that necessarily has to negate the rights of somebody else to demand a life sentence without parole in their own will – the extent a victim may want to “punish” an aggressor may vary and as the victim, surely the most libertarian way of going about things would be to leave the extent of said punishment to the victim of a crime (up to the levels of proportionality, of course)?


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