Chris Marshall: This is how long convicted murderers spend in prison

HMP Edinburgh is among the prisons from which inmates have produced art for a new exhibit.
HMP Edinburgh is among the prisons from which inmates have produced art for a new exhibit.
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The amount of time spent in prison by murderers in Scotland has got much longer over the last few years, says Chris Marshall.

When convicted murderer Robbie McIntosh attacked Linda McDonald with a dumbbell in Templeton Woods, Dundee, earlier this year, there were striking similarities with the earlier case for which he had been sent to prison.

McIntosh was jailed for life in 2002 after stabbing to death Anne Nicoll at Dundee Law when he was just 15. Fifteen years on, McIntosh was being considered for parole when he was allowed home from prison on leave.

It was then that he attacked Mrs McDonald, fracturing the 52-year-old dog walker’s skull as he battered her around the head.

McIntosh is now back behind bars and will be sentenced later this month after pleading guilty to attempted murder. His case has re-started the debate over so-called “whole-life” sentences where those who commit the most serious offences spend the rest of their lives in jail without being considered for parole.

Earlier this year the Scottish Conservatives pledged to bring forward legislation on whole-life sentences after the killer of 15-year-old Paige Doherty had his sentence reduced on appeal.

John Leathem’s jail term was shortened from 27 years to 23 after his lawyers argued the shopkeeper had left the teenager’s body in a place where it could be easily discovered. Leathem’s legal team contrasted the case with that of Alexander Pacteau, who was sentenced to 23 years for murdering student Karen Buckley and attempting to dispose of her body.

Often misunderstood, life sentences in Scotland come with a “punishment part”, the minimum amount of time a prisoner will spend in custody before being considered for release. After release, the person remains on licence and can be recalled to prison for the rest of their life.

There is a perception the courts have gradually become more lenient on those who commit the most serious offences, but the opposite is true.

Analysis of historical Parole Board data shows the average time served by those on life sentences in Scotland has steadily increased since the early 1970s, as the homicide rate has fallen.

The average tariff for those receiving a life sentence has increased from 10 years in 2000 to over 18 years in 2012. Over roughly the same period, the number of homicide cases fell by 47 per cent.

Some offenders have been given significantly longer sentences.

When 69-year-old Angus Sinclair was found guilty of the World’s End murders in 2014 after becoming the first person in Scotland to be re-tried for the same crime following an acquittal. He was sentenced to 37 years behind bars.

The longest sentence ever passed by a Scottish court, it came 37 years after Sinclair raped and strangled 17-year-olds Helen Scott and Christine Eadie after a night out at the World’s End pub on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile in 1977.

Sinclair, who would have to live to 106 to be considered for parole, is just one of many prisoners whose sentences effectively mean they will die behind bars.

Serial killer Peter Tobin will have to wait until the unlikely event of his 113th birthday before his case is considered. Whole-life sentences do exist in England and Wales, meaning prisoners such as Thomas Mair, the killer of MP Jox Cox, will die in prison unless there is an unlikely intervention by a Home Secretary.

But Scotland’s courts can effectively impose the same punishment simply by making the punishment part longer than the remainder of the offender’s life.