Justice expert criticises Scotland’s penal system

Professor Dirk Van Zyl Smit

Scotland should end automatic life sentences for murderers, an international justice expert has said.

Professor Dirk Van Zyl Smit said Scotland’s penal system was out of step with the rest of Europe’s and that it has twice the number of “lifers” as France, The Herald reports.

He suggested that “not all murderers are equally dangerous” and called on Scotland to follow the examples of places including Norway, where killer Anders Breivik was given a sentence of 21 years for murdering 77 people.

Scotland has about 1,000 life prisoners while England has about 5,500. In comparison Russia has 1,800 and France 500.

Only the most serious killers are given life sentences in Russia and France while Germany gives life sentences to all murderers, though construes the crime narrowly.

Mr Van Zyl Smit said: “Scottish people often have an idea of the criminal justice system as not being as harsh as elsewhere. At the top end that is not true.

“The UK has the highest rate of life sentencing in Europe and Scotland sentences more prisoners to life, proportionately, than England.

“The UK and Turkey together have more lifers than the rest of Europe put together, including Russia.

“There is a hard question about what you do with your worst offenders.

“The main concern is that numbers are burgeoning here, while some countries do not have life sentences at all.”

Life sentences do not usually mean the prisoner remains in jail indefinitely.

Judges are required to sentence for life in the case of murder and to add a minimum tariff  to be served. These tariffs have been increasing.

The Scottish Conservatives have called for life sentences to actually mean life imprisonment.

Professor Van Zyl Smit said: “More than 30 countries have neither the death sentences nor life sentences.

“Others use them more sparingly.

“People who defend the system say we reflect the seriousness of the offence in a life sentence and the minimum period lifers have to serve before they are eligible for release.”

Related articles