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The King’s Speech – whole life sentences – the perfect headline

By Michael Devlin

Published In: Crime

The King gave his first speech to Parliament earlier this month outlining the government’s legislative plans for the coming year. The proposals cover many areas of the law, but the headlines are always attracted to those relating to the Criminal Justice System. As expected, the headline about increasing the availability of whole life sentences was the perfect attention-grabbing headline.

King Charles in the State Carriage

Extending whole life sentences – what does this mean?

The extension of whole life sentences to people convicted of murder that has elements of sexual motivation or sadistic behaviour was first announced by the government in August. It’s a demonstration that this government wants to be seen as tough on crime. It’s a tactic common to governments of all political parties that when they want a positive headline, they increase the length of prison sentences.

How does this work in practice?

On the face of it, it’s an easy thing to do because there’s never anyone calling for lighter sentences and the implementation doesn’t cost anything when introduced. It only starts to cost when people commit the crimes and then their imprisonment needs to be paid for. Judges have recently been directed to delay sentencing people who are on bail and who are likely to receive prison sentences, because the prisons are simply full to capacity. Increasing the length of sentences inevitably results in more people spending longer in prison and places a greater strain on the system. This in turn ultimately increases pressure on the government to spend a substantial amount of public money on expanding capacity.  Locking more people up may be a popular policy but then telling people that their taxes may need to increase to pay for it not so much.

What is the real impact of this policy change?

 This raises the question of what impact this amendment to the law will have on the prison system and that is where it becomes apparent that this was indeed the perfect headline. The cost will be minimal.

At the moment, murders with sexual motivation or a sadistic element only attract a whole life sentence if it involves someone killing more than one person. The amended law will mean that a single murder of this nature will attract a whole life sentence now as well.

A whole life sentence is one where the prisoner will never be released from prison except on the most exceptional compassionate grounds. Any other sentence for murder is one where a life sentence is imposed but a person can apply for release after they have served a certain number of years this is known as the tariff. The parole board may then release them, or they may decide that the person still presents too high a risk to society, and they must remain in prison.

 Fortunately, the proportion of people within our jails who have been convicted of murder is relatively low the proportion of people convicted of such aggravated offences, even lower. People who are convicted of murders with sexual motivation or elements of sadism would already expect to have a very high tariff. There have been cases in recent years that have attracted tariffs of 36 and 38 years. Depending on the age of the convict, that may well already be a whole life tariff and even if the end of the tariff is reached, there’s no guarantee that the prisoner would be released at that point.

The upshot of this is that the government can show they are tough on crime but without actually impacting significantly on the prison population or the tax-payers pocket. A perfect headline.

 Our criminal defence solicitors work with people accused of a wide range of crimes. If you need legal support, call 0800 138 0458 or email




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Michael has 20 years’ experience in criminal law. He is a Solicitor Advocate, Duty Solicitor and leads our Crime team.

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