Public Survey of the Mandatory Life Sentence for Murder

28 October 2010

New research suggests that public support for the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for murder is much more limited than has traditionally been assumed.

Furthermore, public opinion on the sentencing of murderers seems to be based on a limited understanding of the current system, according to the survey by Professor Barry Mitchell, of Coventry University Law School, and Professor Julian Roberts, from the Law Faculty at the University of Oxford.

The researchers, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found no evidence of widespread public support for automatically sentencing all convicted murderers to life imprisonment, although the level of public support increased for more serious cases of murder.

These findings confirm previous research by Professor Mitchell that the public believe different scenarios warrant different sentences; given the choice in a range of cases, they would support applying different sentences. Although at present it is unclear how far there is a consensus about what constitutes a particularly serious murder.

The vast majority of people incorrectly assume the murder rate in England and Wales has increased over the past decade, or at the very least has stayed the same, when it has actually begun to decline somewhat. A large proportion of those surveyed underestimated the length of time that most murderers spend in prison before being released on life licence.

If the law is to broadly correspond to public opinion, serious consideration should be given to restructuring the law of murder so that the mandatory life sentence is retained only for particularly serious cases. A recommendation along these lines was made by the Law Commission in 2006, but no action was taken by the Labour government.

The coalition government has committed to publishing a Green Paper on sentencing and rehabilitation in the coming months.

Professors Mitchell and Roberts also called for greater awareness and better understanding of the state’s response to murder, in an effort to produce greater confidence in the criminal justice system.

Download Public opinion and sentencing for murder: An empirical investigation of public knowledge and attitudes in England and Wales  

ENDS

For further information contact Frances Bright, Communications Manager on 020 7681 9586.

Notes 

1. The full report, Public opinion and sentencing for murder: An empirical investigation of public knowledge and attitudes in England and Wales by Barry Mitchell and Julian Roberts is attached. It will be published online at www.nuffieldfoundation.org on Friday 29 October 2010. 

2. There were two stages to the research: face-to-face interviews with 1,027 people, and six focus groups. 

3. The Nuffield Foundation is charitable trust that aims to improve social well-being in the widest sense. It funds research and innovation in education and social policy and also works to build capacity in education, science and social science research. It has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. 

4. Murder cases in England and Wales currently require the judge to pass a sentence of life imprisonment for convictions of murder. Discretion is given to the judge to recommend how long the murderer must spend in prison before s/he can apply for release on licence. 

5. In November 2006 the Law Commission recommended changes to the murder law that would reduce the scope of the offence (which the Commission called “murder in the first degree”) and thus reduce the cases which would continue to attract a mandatory life sentence (Murder, Manslaughter and Infanticide, Law Com No 304 (2006) para 9.5, London TSO). 

6. The Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke announced plans for a Green Paper on sentencing and Rehabilitation on 30 June 2010 www.justice.gov.uk/sp300610a.htm