Saturday, 10 May 2008

Why ‘life’ should mean life

Update: Read this article from the BBC website on 'whole of life' tariff prisoners here and in the USA.

CS Lewis’s essay ‘On the Humanitarian Theory of Punishment’ begins with a comment which will make little sense to someone born in this country after 1970: “I do not know whether a murderer is more likely to repent and make a good end on the gallows a few weeks after his trial or in the prison infirmary thirty years later.” The alien concept is not hanging. Rather, it is that the person spared that fate would be expected to die in prison.

At the time of writing (in 1949), whilst there were many in society opposed to the death penalty, the only alternative being seriously contemplated in public debate was that convicted murderers would be locked up for the rest of their lives. This, it was felt, would have the same effect as hanging — the murderer would be appropriately punished by being permanently deprived of normal life and removed from society — whilst avoiding the moral pitfalls of the death penalty.

The modern relic of this is the term ‘life sentence’, regularly used in relation to tariffs imposed by our courts. It is, however, a mere left-over from a previous era, for clearly, in an increasing number of cases, it means an actual prison terms of as little as fifteen years (compare that with Lewis’s “thirty years later”).

This is of particular significance when one considers the rising number of teenaged murderers. In a single day this week, five teenagers were give ‘life’ sentences for two separate murders. However, if they serve the minimum term imposed (and there is presumably no reason in law why they should not), the oldest of them will be just 32 on his release, whilst the youngest will be 26.

By any standards, one’s mid twenties or early thirties are not ‘old age’. Nor, when you are a teenager, is one’s life expectancy a mere eleven to fifteen years (the spread of sentences in these cases). Why, then, does the term ‘life’ continue to be used in such cases? The answer is apparently straightforward: it reflects what was proffered as the alternative in the post-war debate over capital punishment. Criminals would not be hung, but they would be ‘locked up for life’. Hence, when a murderer was convicted, the sentence was a ‘life sentence’.

Yet clearly it is not. On the contrary, the typical sentence is no more ‘life’ than Nestlé’s ‘Everlasting Gobstopper’ actually lasts forever. In the case of the confectionary, however, the fiction is innocent. In the case of the criminal sentence, it is pernicious.

First, it must be observed that without the alternative of life-sentencing, it is unlikely that hanging would have been abolished. The life-sentence not only satisfied the concern of many that the punishment for murder should fit the crime, it allowed the anti-hanging lobby to gain the moral high ground in the public debate by reducing the risk of an irretrievable injustice. If the person was later found innocent, it was argued, they could at least be released and compensated.

If, however, someone had suggested that the sentence for murder should be fifteen or so years in jail, they would have been regarded as not merely joking but morally defective. In other words, the situation today would have been inconceivable, and was certainly not intended, in the years before the abolition of hanging. ‘Life sentencing’ was so-called precisely because, at the time, the words meant what they said.

Of course, it is perfectly possible to argue that fifteen years in prison is an adequate tariff for murder. The question I am asking is why we continue to use the term ‘life’ in relation to such a sentence and what is the impact of this practice?

It is beyond contradiction, in my view, that the expression is an anachronism, belonging to a past time and an earlier debate. Its continuing use, however, is both a proof of deception in the past and a continuing source of cultural self-deception in the present. As such, it is deeply injurious to our social health.

The past deception may or may not have been deliberate. I have no way of knowing whether those who oversaw the transition from hanging to custodial sentences ever intended that murderers would henceforth die in prison. It would be interesting to know, and figures must be available, what was the length of the first sentences imposed on murderers who were spared the gallows.

Clearly, however, at some point sentences that could not possibly be for ‘life’ began to be imposed on people who, in a previous generation, would have hung and whom the public was once led to expect would never be freed from jail once convicted. This was the first stage of the deception.

The second stage was that, once this principle of deliberate ‘non-life’ sentencing for murder was established, the term ‘life sentence’ continued to be used without demur from either the judiciary or (most of) the public. Irregardless of how the first deception occurred, this second, self-deception, must be addressed for the damage it causes to our society.

It is dishonest to call a thing what one knows it is not. It is a curious form of cultural dishonesty, therefore, to call a sentence ‘life’ when it is merely ‘long’, and we must ask both why we do this and what impact this has.

We do it, I would suggest, no longer simply because of the past history of the debate about hanging but for two important contemporary reasons.

First, we cannot bring ourselves, collectively, to admit that murdering someone is no longer regarded as particularly heinous. If it was, we would do something more about it.

Secondly, however, we protect ourselves from the moral challenge of punishing the wrongdoer. Continuing to talk about ‘life sentences’ allows us to feel ‘something has been done’ without the difficulty of being responsible for something about which we ourselves might feel guilty.

The problem with hanging was that the choice not to abolish it was, in the end, a personal choice for each of us about whether or not someone’s life should be taken. Equally, if ‘life imprisonment’ for murder meant that the murderer would die in prison, we would each, to some extent, be responsible for that. An increased tariff for murder would impose a moral burden on each member of society and that is something we may not be ready to bear.

At the moment, however, we have the worst of worlds. We are unwilling to admit the truth to ourselves and we salve our consciences with deceptive words. Meanwhile, our children are killing our children. To continue our present practice is therefore not a ‘neutral’ option. It is itself a moral choice, but, I would suggest, it is a choice to act immorally.

Revd John P Richardson
10 May 2008

No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy.


  1. Thank you, John, for your helpful introduction to the moral emptiness of at least one high-profile legal process. It caused me to reflect on the moral and Christian foundations of legal processes - processes from which the 'Christian' element appears to be credited no more.

    For example, do we, as Biblical Christians, believe that someone convicted of a crime can turn their lives around and begin a new life? Of course we do, and so does the Probation service, which looks for evidence of repentance and newness of life before making decisions about release from prison.

    The fact that such evidence is looked for is exactly the Christian idea that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, people can turn their lives around and be a threat to society no longer, and, not many years ago, the Probation Service would have taken exactly that view.

    However, in common with many other things legal, the foundations have crumbled, the Law denies its Christian heritage, and so, apparently, repentance and conversion are simply moral processes.

    And if they are moral processes, they have to be judged against morality, which is constantly on the move and changing its form. Is is any wonder that legal process often comes in for justified criticism, when it doesn't appear to know what foundation it rests upon?

  2. Hi Richard. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Can you please provide a LOCATION? (Eg UK) Meanwhile, I thoroughly recommend to you CS Lewis's essay, if you've not read it already.

  3. Sunny Westcliff-by-the-sea, as usual.