NOTo those who work in secure prisons and hospitals may not notice recent increases in the number of inmates. My work as a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist concerns people convicted of violent crimes, and I am acutely aware that since 2000 the average length of a custodial sentence in England and Wales has almost doubled. In 2021, there were 60 people under life orders (sentences without the possibility of parole), a concept introduced in the UK in 1983. These people will die in prison as punishment for their offences.
Some reading this will think, “And absolutely right too.” I learned a lot about people’s ability to be cruel in my work. I understand why extreme measures, including life imprisonment, may seem like the only answer to those whose violence and brutality are beyond description. But are we at the point where long prison sentences are actually used as a form of revenge against the most serious culprits, and is this really justified?
In modern times, a range of prison sentences have been developed to cater for different types of offences. These replaced eye-for-an-eye physical punishments and state killings. The concept of a ‘life sentence’ in the UK and most other jurisdictions was that the offender’s life was under the control of the state. They could be granted parole but be imprisoned at any time if they violated the terms of release; “obtaining life” did not imply death in prison. The number of years spent behind bars (the “tariff”) was at the discretion of the sentencing judge. It was not uncommon for a person convicted of homicide to be given a tariff of 10 or 12 years if it was their first offence.
All this has changed in recent years, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom. Over the past four decades, the US prison population has quadrupled, and at 2 million, it now has the highest per capita rate in the world. One in seven American prisoners is serving a life sentence, five times more than in 1984. Before the Britons all gasp in horror, note that one in eight prisoners in the UK are serving a life sentence, the highest rate in Europe by a substantial margin. The big shift in this category came in the UK in the early 2000s. The Labor government at the time, keen not to be seen as soft on crime, expanded sentence and also added to the types of offenses that attracted life orders. Sentence lengths have steadily increased since then.
It’s hard not to think that harsher sentences reflect a general desire for revenge, a rise of a kind of socially sanctioned outrage, which is stoked by increasingly populist impulses in the press and the political arena. . But the job of the law is actually to prevent revenge, not to enact it. Like the philosopher Francis Bacon said: “Vengeance is a kind of savage justice, to which the more the nature of man tends, the more the law must eliminate it.” This savagery is well captured by the colloquial word “outrage”: an uncontrollable rage, overstepping its bounds.
I think revenge can also be a way of coping with grief. I vividly remember a patient I worked with who killed a stranger when he was mentally ill and was sent to the hospital for treatment. His victim’s family were outraged that he was not in jail, perhaps thinking secure hospitals were a softer option. They bombarded us with phone calls and threatened legal action if we released him (a decision that was not even up to the hospital).
Perhaps their strength of feeling had to do with some sort of survivor’s guilt, a feeling that they would let the victim down if they didn’t try to make the killer suffer as much as possible. I suspect such feelings will have only deepened their grief – as the saying goes, hating someone else is like poisoning yourself and waiting their die. But as a response to trauma, it’s not inevitable. For every vengeful family member of a homicide victim, another will choose not to be, believing that retribution and hatred will do nothing to replace their loss or ease their pain. It seems to be a complex matter of conditioning, choice, and sometimes religious belief that sends individuals back and forth; I count myself lucky not to have had to stand at this crossroads myself and do not wish to judge anyone who has.
Concerns about the corrosive effect of revenge on the individual may also apply to the general public. A revenge-obsessed society is not a healthy and resilient society. And there are also pragmatic considerations – can we really afford the kind of revenge that manifests itself in long sentences or life sentences? The average cost is around £40,000 per year per person. Keeping so many people incarcerated longer will ultimately cost taxpayers millions. No doubt some will call for bringing back the death penalty as a cheaper option, but capital punishment is unethical due to the number of false convictions and dangerous in terms of state power. It is also unnecessary. There is little evidence that a sanction works to deter offenders; Offender recidivism data indicate that only rehabilitation initiatives, such as drug treatment, literacy and employment programs, have a tangible impact on recidivism.
Some voices, particularly in the United States, have called for the total abolition of prisons and their replacement with community programs for the rehabilitation of offenders. For non-violent offenders, this idea deserves serious consideration. But there will always be those who need to be detained or placed in secure specialist hospitals to manage the risk they pose, so total abolition seems to me both unlikely and unwise.
This does not mean that the use of extreme punishment as a form of revenge against such people is sound, either practically or morally. Giving judges greater flexibility in sentencing and increasing investments in rehabilitation programs – while providing more support for victims of violent crime – seem like smarter uses of precious public funds. Let’s take Bacon’s advice and turn to the law to “eliminate” revenge, not amplify it.
Gwen Adshead is a forensic psychiatrist and co-author, with Eileen Horne, of The Devil You Know: Stories of Human Cruelty and Compassion.
Why punish? by Nigel Walker (Oxford, £10.99)
change everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition by Ruth Wilson Gilmore (Haymarket, £16.99)
Forgiveness, an exploration by Marina Cantacuzino (Simon & Schuster, £14.99)