Public Survey of the Mandatory Life Sentence for Murder

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Friday 29 October 2010

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New research suggests that public support for the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for murder is much more limited than has traditionally been assumed.

Furthermore, public opinion on the sentencing of murderers seems to be based on a limited understanding of the current system, according to the survey by Professor Barry Mitchell, of Coventry University Law School, and Professor Julian Roberts, from the Law Faculty at the University of Oxford.

The researchers, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found no evidence of widespread public support for automatically sentencing all convicted murderers to life imprisonment, although the level of public support increased for more serious cases of murder.

These findings confirm previous research by Professor Mitchell that the public believe different scenarios warrant different sentences; given the choice in a range of cases, they would support applying different sentences. Although at present it is unclear how far there is a consensus about what constitutes a particularly serious murder.

The vast majority of people incorrectly assume the murder rate in England and Wales has increased over the past decade, or at the very least has stayed the same, when it has actually begun to decline somewhat. A large proportion of those surveyed underestimated the length of time that most murderers spend in prison before being released on life licence.

If the law is to broadly correspond to public opinion, serious consideration should be given to restructuring the law of murder so that the mandatory life sentence is retained only for particularly serious cases. A recommendation along these lines was made by the Law Commission in 2006, but no action was taken by the Labour government.

The coalition government has committed to publishing a Green Paper on sentencing and rehabilitation in the coming months.

Professors Mitchell and Roberts also called for greater awareness and better understanding of the state’s response to murder, in an effort to produce greater confidence in the criminal justice system.