How long do child killers serve in prison?

18 September 2019
What was claimed

Under new government plans, murderers of pre-school children will be subject to whole-life sentences for the first time.

Our verdict

It’s already possible for people who murder children to be given whole-life sentences, but usually only in certain cases.

What was claimed

Prisoners becoming eligible for early release halfway through their sentences was a Labour policy.

Our verdict

It actually first became law in 1991, under a Conservative government. Labour continued it in a major revamp of the law in 2003.

“Life will mean life for child killers … For the first time, murderers of pre-school children will be subject to whole-life orders.”

“The Government will also rip up Labour’s policy of prisoners becoming eligible for release at the halfway point of their sentences. Instead, it wants violent and sexual offenders to serve at least two thirds of their full terms.”

Sunday Telegraph front page, 15 September 2019

The Sunday Telegraph claimed last weekend that the government plans to change the law to increase the sentences for criminals in England and Wales.

The paper claimed murderers of pre-school children will be subject to whole-life terms in prison for the first time. This isn’t the whole picture: while the proposal would mean more cases of child murderers being subject to life in prison, it’s already possible for this to happen in more limited cases.

It’s also not correct to describe the policy of releasing prisoners (sentenced for any offence) at the halfway point of their sentence as coming from Labour, as it originated under a Conservative government.

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Whole-life sentences already exist in some cases when a child is murdered

It’s already possible for murderers of children of any age to be given “whole-life” orders in England and Wales, though there are qualifications on when it can be applied.

A “whole-life-order” is a sentence which means a prisoner can never be released from prison and cannot be considered for parole. It’s a starting point for cases where the court decides the seriousness of an offence is “exceptionally high” and the offender was over 21 when they committed it.

The law gives guidance for the kinds of cases that would be included:

  • Murdering multiple people, involving some premeditation or planning, abduction, sexual or sadistic conduct
  • Murdering children if this involves abduction or sexual or sadistic motivation
  • Murdering a police officer in the course of his or her duty
  • Murdering for a political, religious, racial or ideological cause
  • Murder by an offender with a previous conviction for murder

It’s possible that this government plan means broadening the law to include all cases involving children, similar to the most recent law change in 2015 when murdering police officers was explicitly added to the list of ‘whole-life’ starting points.

Release at the halfway stage of a sentence was introduced by a Conservative government

The Sunday Telegraph goes on to mention the government plans to scrap a Labour policy of prisoners being eligible for release at the halfway point of their sentences.

But as legal commentators have pointed out, this policy originated under a Conservative government.

The Criminal Justice Act 1991—passed when John Major was Prime Minister—introduced new arrangements in England and Wales where certain prisoners were released at the halfway point of their sentence (and remained on licence if their sentence was over a year). This was actually an increase from the previous norm where prisoners could be released after one-third of their sentence.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003—passed under Tony Blair’s Labour government—continued that policy.

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