What should we do with adults who murder children? ‘Nothing good’ is a perfectly understandable response. Child killers occupy a unique position on the destitute outer fringes of humanity. Bogeymen made real, they are in fact often pathetic, hideously damaged individuals driven to satisfy appetites we can only guess at.
The Conservatives have announced that adults over 21 who murder children under 16 will never be released from custody. It has made for a good Sun newspaper op-ed; justice secretary Robert Buckland is pushing against an open door with the electorate.
It’s not just Tory voters who never want these aberrant individuals to see the light of day again. Ask any parent and wait for the sound of sharpened pitchforks. In prison, where hierarchies exist as much as in the free world, child killers and paedophiles are at the bottom of the pile. Many are targeted for retribution. Only last month, Richard Huckle who sexually abused up to 200 Malaysian babies and children was found dead in his high-security prison cell. People who offend against children, the last taboo in criminality, do not enjoy a great shelf life. Many like the Moors murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley die in custody as intended.
But while the Tories’ policy will go down well with voters, it is a completely wasted opportunity. The number of adult child killers in custody is extremely small. Many will either be serving exceptionally long sentences or, at a judge’s discretion, be given whole-life orders on conviction meaning they can never be freed. These tariffs are imposed when the murder of a child had particularly brutal or sadistic aggravating features or there are multiple victims. They have recently been endorsed by the European Court. I’m not one for blithely accepting that judges never get it wrong but in these gravest of crimes I think we can rely on their ability to pass sentences that reflect public revulsion.
It would have been far better for the Conservatives to focus on more pressing concerns in the prison system instead of chasing a quick headline. Safety across our failing penal system is out of control, with an average of two prison staff ending up in A&E each day following attacks by inmates. Morale is on the floor and expensively-trained new staff sometimes leave within days when they see the brutal reality of their working environment. There’s an epidemic of self harm and atrocious invisible corporate leadership is unable to stem the decline in basic standards. Psychoactive drugs are more easily available in some jails than clean sheets, according to a report written by the chief inspector of prisons. These substances are fuelling a rampant black economy that makes rehabilitation all but impossible. These are the priorities that ought to be consuming the new political bosses at the ministry of justice, from whatever party they hail.
There was one ray of hope. Sort of. A commitment, drowned out by the punitive populism above, was made to create a new prison education service. Some of us old hands can remember previous iterations of prison education provision, bouncing between national, local, private and local authority like an unwanted love child in a divorce. Each brave new dawn was strangled by either insufficient, resources, ludicrous bureaucracy or both. Maybe next time, eh? Learning is freedom, after all.
The majority of adults who murder children with malice aforethought are already banged up for as close to forever as makes no difference. Good riddance. They might haunt our nightmares but in the real world they aren’t the ones screwing our cars, burgling our homes, lying dead from despair, putting staff in hospital or reoffending and creating more victims. Let’s focus on the real problems please.
Ian Acheson is a former prison governor