Should a life sentence mean life?

As David Gilroy begins a life sentence for killing Suzanne Pilley, an MSP and a legal reformer make their case for what the term should mean


By Gavin Brown

Scottish Conservative Lothians MSP

While our justice system has several important aims, protection of the public is absolutely paramount.

This fundamental principle has to be at the heart of all decision making. At the same time, in order to command public confidence, the system needs to be transparent. One area where this currently fails is in life sentences – at the moment life simply does not mean life, or anything close to it.

We are failing in other areas, too – yesterday, we learned that a man convicted of a vicious rape which stunned the country was not being given the round-the-clock supervision he clearly requires because it could no longer be afforded.

Of course, this would not even be a discussion if he had served the sentence handed to him following the attack at Rosslyn Chapel but, due to the automatic early release scheme which the Scottish Government refuses to scrap, he was released years early.

Instead of torturing ourselves about the human rights of criminals sentenced for brutal horrors, such as rape and murder, we should instead consider the victims and relatives in these cases as a far greater priority. Victims are too often forgotten about and they deserve a strong voice in the criminal justice system.

When they bravely attend a court hearing – often the first time they have confronted the perpetrator – and hear a life sentence being deservedly handed down, they take that verdict at face value – under no circumstances will this person be free to commit a similar offence against them or anyone else. As it stands, that illusion of security is shattered sometimes little over a decade into a sentence.

We must never lose sight of prison’s role in keeping the public safe, and many people who see serious criminals walking free after serving a fraction of their sentence – life or otherwise – struggle to understand why.

The current SNP government has proved something of a soft touch when it comes to justice policy. It should put this right with two swift priorities – ending automatic early release and ensuring that, from now on, life in prison means life. Those who carry out the most despicable offences should be punished accordingly.


By Mark Day

Head of policy and communications, Prison Reform Trust

Should life mean life? Murder is one of the most heinous crimes and it is right that it can attract the most severe penalty under the law.

No court judgment can make up for the loss of a loved one but often a victim’s family can gain some comfort from justice being done.

In Scotland, a life sentence is mandatory in the case of anyone over the age of 18 who is convicted of murder.

All life sentenced prisoners must serve a minimum term in prison of a length set by the court to satisfy the demands of punishment and deterrence. Once this period is served, the decision whether or not to release the prisoner is determined by the Parole Board.

Only when the prisoner is considered no longer to pose a risk to the public will he be released. Even then, he will be subject to a life licence, which can be revoked at any time, resulting in recall to prison should his behaviour give cause for concern.

There are some who argue that a person convicted of murder should spend the rest of their life behind bars without any possibility of release.

These arguments are similar to those made by advocates for the death penalty – that the loss of a life should mean the person responsible sacrifices their own life by spending it in prison until they die.

Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole attracts many of the same objections as the death penalty. To lock up a person and take away all hope of release is to resort to another form of death sentence.

As Lord Pannick QC said in a recent debate in the House of Lords: “It is simply wrong in principle for anyone, however wicked, to be told that they must spend the whole of their life in prison with no possibility of review, however long is going to elapse and whatever progress they may make.

“It is unlikely that a murderer who has committed such grave crimes that he has received a whole-life tariff will ever make the progress that would make release appropriate, but the point surely is that basic humanity demands that the offender has a chance, however remote, to prove to others and to himself that he can live a worthwhile life.