Unedited version of column for Scottish Sun on Sunday 12th May 2013
SHOULD A LIFE SENTENCE MEAN LIFE?
Earlier this week I was on STV’s Scotland Tonight with Graeme Pearson MSP. In a previous life Graeme was a top cop in charge of Strathclyde’s CID. His compassion for the Chhokar family in the aftermath of their son’s murder has always stayed with me along with a respect for his views.
Some 12 years after we first met, we were on TV to discuss whether life sentences should mean life, following the release of triple killer Thomas McCulloch after 42 years of incarceration.
McCulloch’s escape from Carstair’s State Hospital in 1976 led to the murder of a nurse, fellow patient and then a police officer. On sentencing him the Judge told McCulloch he would die in prison.
Pearson who questioned McCulloch within hours of the murders described him as ‘cold callous’ killer who claimed to the disbelieving young officer that he would one day walk out of the prison gates. Some 36 years later McCulloch was indeed released into our community.
The release of McCulloch perpetuates the grief of his victim’s families and has led to emotional demands for a return to hanging, with the Tory politicians demanding whole life tariffs.
I agree with views that sick, sadistic psychopaths who remain a threat to public safety should spend the rest of their natural lives behind bars. Notorious cases such as the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ or child murderer’s like Ian Brady and Myra Hindley instantly come to mind.
This week when a widow of one of McCulloch’s victims said she wanted ‘revenge and wanted him dead’ such views are understandable, but that is why our system does not allow politicians, the media or victims to dictate punishment based on the emotion of revenge. The purpose of custody is punishment, to protect the public and act as a deterrent, but the final reason is rehabilitation.
As a society are we really saying that if someone commits a crime when they were in the 20’s that after 40 years of incarceration, they cannot be rehabilitated?
To introduce automatic whole life tariffs for all murders would mean no hope of release, in essence the equivalent of a death sentence, where there can be ‘no atonement for one’s crime’ no matter what lessons are learned in the years of incarceration that grind by, punishment would only end ‘with a last breath’. Whole life sentences are inhuman because it ‘excludes all possibility of progress and release.’
Even Pearson accepted that the man he questioned 36 years ago would be a very different one to the old man released this week. Judges, who sit through a whole trial, fix the punishment part of a life sentence, at end of which a Parole Board will only consider release if the killer is no longer deemed a threat to public safety.
The Parole Board are no ‘bleeding heart liberals’, but made up of tough judges, former police officers and prison governors, as well forensic psychiatrists with hundreds of years of criminal experience between them.
In 2011 there were 220 lifers referred to parole board yet only 48 were considered eligible to be released and where an offender breaches their life licence condition they can be recalled to custody.
But I agree with Pearson in that the public must have confidence that killers will be subject to regular, robust monitoring and supervision once released into the community, unless that is done it will always be hard to convince society that releasing killers like McCulloch is the right and just decision.
LOWER THE AGE OF CONSENT?
Barbara Hewson, a so called ‘eminent’ barrister, specialising in reproductive rights has argued for the age of consent to be lowered to 13, arguing this would stop the persecution and witch hunt of old men, post Jimmy Saville.
She believes that men like BBC’s Stuart Hall are ‘scapegoats’ and should never have faced justice for what she called ‘low level misdemeanours’. (Hall had just pled guilty to 14 charges of ‘historic’ indecent assaults on teenage girls, the youngest was only 9)
Bizarrely on her twitter page Hewson proudly boasts of ‘having bigger balls than any guy’ and tweets that more people like her need to stand up and be counted; she even described prosecutors as ‘pervs’ and called Chief Prosecutor Nazir Afzal who has been ruthless in his pursuit of child abuse as ‘Mister Taliban’.
Let’s be clear lowering the age of consent would allow abusers to prey on children with immunity. If Hewson really wants to carry on with her legal dribble, why not go the whole hog and lower the age for driving, voting, smoking, joining the army and leaving home to 13 as well?
I was discussing with my wife a prisoner serving a life sentence since 2006 at which point she said ‘what like me? Took a few seconds to shockingly realise she meant ‘marriage’ to me since 2006. Mrs A, charming as ever, there was me thinking she was ‘living the dream’.