The recent case of Colin Pitchfork (below) has caused the familiar mix of outrage and anger (mainly, as usual, by those who are relatively uneducated in these matters).
Pitchfork was convicted of the rape and murder of two teenage girls, Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth, in 1983 and 1986 respectively. He was handed a life sentence for each with a recommendation that he serve a minimum of 30 years before he could be considered for parole. In both 2016 and 2018, his request for parole was denied but in March of this year, it was determined that he was ‘suitable for release’.
Subsequent to that determination and after it was released via the media, the Ministry of Justice stated it would officially appeal that decision.. The UK Government’s Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland QC said he would formally ask the Parole Board to re-consider the determination. To do so, the board’s decision has to be inherently ‘unfair’ or ‘irrational’. The latter is likely to be the case here.
Pitchfork has himself a dubious claim to fame. He became the first man in the UK to be convicted of murder on the basis of DNA evidence. He pled guilty to two counts of murder, two counts of rape, two of indecent assault and one charge of attempting to pervert the course of justice.
There are many ‘experts’ (criminologists, psychologists, behavioural experts etc.) who believe that Pitchfork’s crimes were so egregious that he can never be rehabilitated and therefore should simply never qualify for parole and never be released. But he has never been handed a ‘whole life order/tariff’, more of which below.
Certainly, his background is ‘dark’, to put it mildly. Not only was he involved in criminal activity in his teens, but his own family expressed horror when they learned of his release. He was first convicted in a juvenile court almost 50 years ago for ‘flashing’ at teenage girls. Notwithstanding that, he volunteered for five years in a Barnardo’s children’s home where he played freely with children. It was there where he met his future wife but also where again, at the age of 21 this time, he was convicted of exposing himself.
Of course, the crimes committed by individuals are not the sole deciding factor in determining whether an individual should be released from incarceration.
Whilst there are multiple ‘aims’ of our (and most) penal systems, there are certainly three worth mentioning and of exploration.
Firstly, there is the element of punishment. By incarcerating an individual, we are principally denying them their liberty. The ‘ripple effect’ will then dictate that many other factors come into play – loss of employment, loss of relationships, lack of contact with children, lack of social contact, et cetera. The effects can be far-reaching and even devastating but many believe they should be. Even so called ‘unintended’ consequences are often seen and interpreted as themselves a form of punishment.
Secondly, there is the element of protection of the public – if we keep people in a secure jail, they cannot cause any further ‘harm’ to society, whether by repeated similar offences or any other offence. There are clearly some individuals that present a grave risk to the public and should not be returned to society – this is the area of most concern to those who believe Pitchfork should not now, or indeed ever, be freed.
Finally, there is the issue of rehabilitation. Some believe it doesn’t work and some, including a formal colleague, told me it ‘shouldn’t matter’, somewhat bizarrely. But, in a civilised society, should we offer every individual the opportunity of being rehabilitated or, paradoxically, are there some individuals, for some crimes, for whom they should simply never be released?
We know the latter is true as we currently have in the UK (but not Scotland who believe the issue is contrary to human rights) some 75 individuals who will never be released as a result of the imposition of a ‘whole life order/tariff’. So clearly whilst they do exist, the vast majority of our criminals (even those convicted of homicide and sexual crimes) are deemed to be capable, potentially, of rehabilitation (although clearly not all are).
The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer , a former Director of Public Prosecution at the CPS (our COPFS) gave a radio interview a fortnight ago and said that Pitchfork had ‘served a long sentence and he served the sentence imposed on him by the court, and under our system that means there comes a point at which he has to be released’. And he’s right.
That is not to say that our system is right – evidently it is not. But when we examine the background of an individual, is it ever possible that they can be rehabilitated? Why is it that some convicted of murder and rape are released from prison on licence and live a subsequent crime-free life without re-offending but, for others, rehab simply doesn’t work. Empirical evidence has shown us that factors such as socio-economic issues, genetics and psychology all play a part. And then for others, as here with the Pitchfork case, the communal outrage and revulsion against his crimes is such that there appears consensus that they should remain incarcerated perpetually. But surely in any civilised and democratic society, we have bodies and procedures in place for all sorts of issues and, in general, we trust them. Should every individual convicted of drink driving never be allowed to drive again (in case they repeat the offence). Or do we punish them and expect/(hope) that during any period of disqualification along with attendance at a rehabilitative course, they are entitled to drive again..?
Here, in the Pitchfork case, it seems to me that whilst we, as a society are entitled to raise questions, by and large we should accept that the procedures we have in place are adequate and, if not, lobby parliament for a change. That is the procedure. As I have said before on these pages, it is not for the public simply to express their own personal views on a subject and simply expect that opinion to be adopted. That would not be helpful.
This area raises many questions and I pose them multiple times in class each year – and the answers and opinions of our future lawyers, criminologists, probation officers, parole board members and even MPs are often startling.
I’ll ask them again starting next month ……….and shall expect a familiar variety of answers and opinions.
An interesting one, for sure.