European Courts of Human Rights (ECHR)

European Courts of Human Rights (ECHR). Photograph by Frank Müller

The decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that “life means life” sentences for inmates are against their human rights has found many detractors, but if the prison system is for reform and not just punishment then hope of release is a requirement.

The ECHR decision has not recommended that prisons release the most dangerous criminals, but found that giving a prisoner no hope of release is “inhuman and degrading”. The court has recommended that those serving life with no possibility of parole should have their cases reviewed after 25 years, with the possibility of being freed at that point, not the requirement.

In most cases the parole board is likely to find that the prisoner remains a threat to society and so will remain in prison, with only the most frail and reformed prisoners having a chance of freedom. In all other cases the prisoner would be sent back to jail or the secure hospital where they are being held to continue their incarceration.

The ability for all criminals to seek parole may also give these “lifers” a reason to behave well whilst serving their sentence, whereas currently there is little incentive for them to do so. More importantly, however, it gives the inmates some hope that one day their cases could be reviewed and they may see freedom again. If our prison system is supposed to reform inmates and not simply a place to lock up people and throw away the key, then this hope is vital.

A person who commits a crime is temporarily stripped of their right to freedom in order to both punish them and as an attempt to get them to reform their behaviour. Removing any hope of having such a basic right restored, even under the most unlikely circumstances, however, is degrading treatment. Very few, if any, of these criminals will ever be released, and none if they remain a danger to society, but stripping them of their hope for freedom is more revenge than reform.



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