Chris Marshall: For murder, many continue to believe life should mean life

When the killer of 15-year-old Paige Doherty had his jail term reduced on appeal earlier this year, it re-started the debate over whole-life sentences.

The killer of Paige Doherty had his initial 27-year jail term reduced by four years, which sparked a row over sentencing policy.
The killer of Paige Doherty had his initial 27-year jail term reduced by four years, which sparked a row over sentencing policy.

Shop owner John Leathem stabbed the teenager 61 times after she visited his deli in Clydebank in March 2016.

His initial 27-year term was reduced by four years after appeal court judge Lord Turnbull ruled the sentence had been “excessive” and “inconsistent with current sentencing practice”.

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It’s an amended sentence which means that Leathem could be free in his mid-50s and while likely to be subject to parole conditions, able to live out his latter years in a way his victim will not.

As well as appalling Paige Doherty’s family, the reduction of Leathem’s sentence led the Scottish Conservatives to pledge the introduction of a member’s bill on whole-life terms, which would see those convicted of the most heinous crimes die behind bars.

The proposal could be given impetus by a recently launched consultation on court sentencing, which will allow the public to have their say in the punishments handed down by Scotland’s courts.

The move, described as “long overdue” by Victim Support Scotland, will give interested parties the opportunity to comment on the Scottish Sentencing Council’s first draft guideline.

Set up in 2015, the SSC seeks to promote consistency in sentencing as well as public understanding of how the courts operate.

While the SSC’s recently published guideline makes it clear the purpose of a court sentence can be punishment, protecting the public and “reflecting society’s disapproval of an offender’s behaviour”, it also notes the importance of rehabilitation and giving an offender “the opportunity to make amends”.

The corrosive impact of time spent behind bars, particularly for low-level offenders, is only now being addressed.

A Scottish Government consultation last year found many of those working in criminal justice are in favour of a presumption against sentences of less than a year.

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The rationale, borne out by plenty of evidence, is that a community sentence can be more effective at diverting someone from a life of crime than six months in prison.

It’s not clear, however, how far the public shares the views of the professionals that prison should be seen as a last resort.

The issue becomes more difficult still when we consider serious violent and sexual offences, which will always carry a jail term.

If prison is about rehabilitation as well as punishment, then are those who have committed the most shocking crimes not also entitled to a second chance after their time spent behind bars?

It remains to be seen what level of engagement there will be with the ongoing SSC consultation.

At the very least, it’s hoped it will help promote a greater understanding of how the courts operate and how sentencing works in practice.

But it’s to be expected that most will continue to see prison’s main function as punishment and the sentences handed down by the courts for rape and murder as unduly lenient.

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While there is now a growing professional consensus in favour of community sentencing for minor offences, all the indications are that for the most serious crimes, the public continues to believe life should mean life.