Every time there are reports of a brutal child murder, I receive a dozen or so demands for restoration of the death penalty. And so it was last week after the trial of Kyle Bevan for the murder of his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter, Lola James.
I have voted for the return of the death penalty on three occasions in Parliament but alas, the majorities against restoration were overwhelming.
I recall an election meeting in a church where I was challenged on the ground’s that as a Christian I ought to oppose the death penalty. I responded by quoting from article 37 of the 39 Articles which form the doctrinal foundation of the Church of England:
“The laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences”.
I suspect that there would be majority support for restoration, but that a significant minority would remain viscerally opposed. Every death sentence would be the focus of public protests. It might also be more difficult to secure convictions for capital offences as jurors contemplate the finality of a guilty verdict. In any event, whatever the pros and cons, there just is no parliamentary majority to be had for it.
The public demand for justice might be assuaged however, were a life sentence to mean what is says. There is nothing more frustrating than to see people who have been imprisoned for the most horrible offences being released to present a danger to the public once again.
This undermines our whole concept of justice, and it extends from wicked and violent crimes down to more minor offences.
When a judge hands down a sentence in court it bears little relation to the time that will actually be served in prison. Indeed, it requires multiple convictions of burglary before the offender sees the inside of a prison at all.
There was a time when a politician (in those days the Home Secretary) was able to determine the ‘tariff’ -the actual minimum time of any sentence that a convict would serve. But this was considered to breach the constitutional principle of the ‘separation of powers’ between government and judiciary. So, that power was removed from the hands of elected politicians.
Now the only lever that ministers can pull is the right of appeal that the Attorney General has, where it is considered that a sentence has been unduly lenient.
Which brings me to Labour’s recent advertisement insisting that the Prime Minister doesn’t want child sex offenders imprisoned. On the contrary, I rather suspect that the PM shares my prejudice that they should be locked-up and the key thrown away. I don’t know if he would go as far as I would and make it a capital offence, were in in my power to do so.
It is very frustrating but the reality is -and Labour knows it, neither the PM nor any other politician, can determine the penalty that the trial judge imposes.
What we can do however, is increase the penalties available to the courts. When we’ve introduced measures to do exactly that, Labour has voted against them.