Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is due to announce on 15th May 2013 (to the Police Federation Annual Conference) that those who “Criminals who kill police officers will face minimum whole life sentences”.
How it works at the moment
The current position is that anyone convicted of murder will receive a life sentence. This is regardless of the seriousness of the offence, and however unnecessary a life sentence would be.
The trial Judge has to set a ‘tariff’, the minimum period (and it is a minimum period, you cannot be released before that period, and many people will serve a lot more) that has to be served before someone can go in front of the Parole Board and apply for release.
There are a small number of people (about 50-60) who are serving ‘whole life’ tariffs, meaning that they will never be released.
Currently, the following types of murder will mean that the Judge starts his or her consideration of the tariff by looking at a whole life tariff:
- the murder of a child if involving the abduction of the child or sexual or sadistic motivation,
- a murder done for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause, or
- a murder by an offender previously convicted of murder.
The murder of two or more persons, where each murder involves any of the following—
- a substantial degree of premeditation or planning,
- the abduction of the victim, or
- sexual or sadistic conduct,
May’s proposal would be to move the starting point for murder of a police officer from the 30 year bracket to the whole life bracket.
Will it work?
If by work, you mean stop people murdering police officers, then almost certainly no. There are about an average of one murder of a police officer a year in the last decade. There is nothing to suggest that the starting point of ‘whole life’ rather than ’30 years’ would have made the slightest difference.
Why is it being introduced?
The cynic could point to the fact that she was heckled at last year’s conference and was looking for some populist meat to throw out to the rank and file this year.
We looked at some of the issues around this in relation to the Tia Sharp murder, as well as whether whole life tariffs are wrong in principle here.
Does it make sense? Certainly killing a police officer, someone serving the public, should be an aggravating feature. But, why should the starting point for a firefighter or ambulance driver be 15 years, a prison officer 30 years and a police officer now whole life?
Currently, the murder of a child has a starting point of 15 years, is it right against that backdrop that killing a police officer has a whole life tariff?
There are many other anomalies that can be pointed to. These anomalies stem from the relatively rigid guidelines of Schedule 21 Criminal Justice Act 2003 (which is the part that Ms May wishes to amend).
Prior to that, there were two categories – ‘standard’ and ‘serious’ murders, with starting points for the tariff of 12 and 16 years respectively (but with lots of flexibility within that). Instead of making the guidelines more and more intricate, is it not best to return to the old way, with the ability to reflect the seriousness of the facts of the case as they are, without having to measure it against Parliamentary guidelines?