Considering the Whole-Life Tariff

Channel 4’s recent ‘Lifers’ documentary has bought the issue of whole-life tariffs to the forefront of people’s minds.  To the more conservative members of society, this sentencing option gives judges the power to permanently lock up some of the most dangerous people (at least, those who have committed the most heinous crimes).  However, to those with a more liberal outlook, these sentences completely undermine a fundamental human condition – change – and present additional problems for those working within the prison service.  Here, I discuss some of the issues relating to whole-life prison sentences.

As at December 2011 – when this post was originally written – there were 36 people (35 males, 1 female) incarcerated within the UK prison system on whole-life tariffs.  These people will never be released from prison after the violence that they have inflicted on others – no matter how they develop whilst ‘on the inside’.  For me this raises some serious concerns.  My view of prisons is that they are fundamentally places for reformation and rehabilitation.  My previous posts indicate that only the most dangerous criminals should be housed in prisons (a theory supported by the risk-need-responsivity model of offender rehabilitation) – only this way can you focus on doing intensive therapeutic work without passing on “tricks of the trade” to lesser criminals , such as those with acquisitive or public order offences.Politically, it’s wise for the Government to continue the trend of increasing the number of prisoners serving whole-life sentences.  This satisfies a certain Lombrosian culture that seems to fester in the vast majority of criminal justice rhetoric in the UK, and the concept of whole-life sentences seems to support this ideology by suggesting that some violent offenders are beyond help.

Another important point to raise is that, if a prisoner knows there is no chance of release, what do they have to lose?  They may as well behave however they like, and, with few opportunities for rehabilitation (why waste money of offending behaviour programmes on those beyond help?), prisoners on whole-life sentences have the perfect excuse to take their frustrations out on other inmates, or indeed police officers.  The press would no doubt report these incidents as ‘proof’ that these “beasts” should be locked up for the rest of their days – but they actually contribute to these events.  How would they react if they had no hope?

From a philosophical standpoint, it could be argued that whole-life tariffs are in some ways worse than the death penalty.

Instead of ending a person’s life in a literal sense, you keep them locked up for the rest of their days, with no hope and no opportunities, slowly eroding the person’s sense of self-worth (if indeed they had much left after entering the prison system).  In addition, the death penalty makes more economic sense than does the whole-life tariff.  Assuming an average cost of keeping an inmate in prison of £35,000, and an entry age of 30, this could mean a lifetime cost of £1.75million to the taxpayer.  As stated previously – there are currently 36 such inmates in the prison system, and, with this sentencing option becoming increasingly popular, this cost is not sustainable.


For me, nobody should be condemned for life.  It makes no economic sense, it makes no moral sense, and it makes no sense in terms of safety in prisons.  Change is a fundamental aspect of being human, and writing somebody off in this way is tantamount to equating them to a lesser species.

I welcome your views on this subject.  I know that my opinions may not sit well with many on the popular/mainstream media, but open, honest, and evidence-based debate is the only way to make progress on this thorny issue.

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