• Author:Ben Jones
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The language of life sentences

The recent Court of Appeal case following last year’s European Court ruling has thrown the debate about life sentences or life terms back on the public’s agenda.

For the purpose of this post I am not concerned about the legal position- important though that is- but the language used and the reason it is important.

For the justice system to work effectively it needs to do more than be a technical delivery of the law- it must carry the public’s confidence. I believe that the biggest cause of public disquiet and loss of confidence is when sentences don’t do what they say on the tin. This lack of a Ronseal moment is seen most acutely when considering life sentences- as by their nature they are the most serious cases and the people who pose the greatest risk to our safety.

If someone is sentenced to life in prisonment, the public expect them to spend the rest of their life in prison. The fact that they don’t concerns and confusing folk. We need much more honesty in our language. ‘Life’ should be used when that is what we mean; not ten years, not twenty years, not thirty years, but life. The whole of the rest of that person’s life. We are not doing that in hundreds of cases and these few that are the subject of this current case provides a great opportunity to start to get it right. In the States the concept of 99 year sentences is appealing as it carries a certainty- something exact. ‘Life’ almost always does not mean life- it means something else.

If life sentences were a brand or a product they would have very little customer loyalty. No-one would be buying. Whether the law as it currently is applied properly or not is not my concern here, it is the language used. We should always try to say what we mean as simply and clearly as we can. Why would it be different in the most serious judgements over someone’s freedom? The language really matters. Let’s call it as it is.