Ryeview – February 2002

Penalised for protesting innocence

John Clark writes…

First published: February 2002 – Gazette & Herald

There is an age when infants ask why? where? how? and infinitely many other questions. As age creeps on the questions become less and the acceptance level grows. Three weeks ago a report lifted me back into the why? level. It concerns people serving life sentences, the example being the case of Yvonne Sleightholme (Gazette and Herald 7th February 2002).

When a judge sentences someone to life imprisonment a Tariff is recommended. If the crime is at the worst end the judge recommends a long sentence. In less severe cases or extenuating circumstances a shorter time scale is usual.

From that point on the length of time served depends on the prisoner. Many behavioural factors may play a small part but the most important part by far is co-operation and acceptance of guilt. This is called “addressing your offending behaviour”.

Those who co-operate, confess, show contrition and generally seek forgiveness benefit within the system. They receive rehabilitation courses, they become eligible for parole, they get parole and eventually freedom. They are seen as a low risk to society.

Those who claim their innocence are said to be in ‘denial of guilt’. According to the legal position this should not prevent them being given parole. Mr Justice Butterfield (27/11/96) said it was impossible for a parole board to say “This man denies his guilt; therefore without considering the circumstances further we will not recommend parole”.

However the reality is much more of a catch 22 situation. Prisoners who ‘deny their guilt’ are not allowed to do rehabilitation courses. When a file is prepared for the parole board it is said “The prisoner has not taken the rehabilitation courses”. The implication being that the prisoner did not want to take the courses. The truth is: “Admission of guilt is a prerequisite of the courses” and hence the prisoner was not allowed to take the courses. This is then used as the major reason for not granting parole. Clearly in spirit the opposite of the judgement given by Mr. Justice Butterfield.

The state is saying to the ‘innocent’ prisoner if you lie you will benefit. In court this is called perjury. In other walks of life this could be bribery or fraud. However good the legal system, there must be some ‘innocent’ people in prison. The lawyers, barristers, judges and jury are only human and some mistakes will happen. My concern is not that mistakes are made but how these mistakes are handled.

There is a long list of prisoners serving their sentences beyond their ‘Tariff’, many of them protesting their innocence. The big question is why should those who commit the crime and then accept their guilt be punished much less than those who ‘maintain their innocence’. It is difficult to believe that someone who has committed a crime would claim ‘innocence’ so as to stay longer in prison. It is impossible to believe that those who are claiming their innocence are a bigger threat to society than those who committed the crime, admitted it and have been released on parole.

Surely in a society that wants people to have moral standards there should be high moral standards in the penal system. The present approach of punishing some people for telling the truth encourages them to lie.

I have endeavoured to confirm the above through various charities, a solicitor, the prison services, the chancellors department and the Home Office. No one categorically denies the situation as I have described it. There was a general air that the system was right. If someone was found guilty then they were guilty. I have no problem with this. I do have a severe problem with the view that the prisoner must agree with the guilt. I have no brief for Yvonne Sleightholme but I am concerned that we may be wrongly increasing the severity of punishment for those who were in fact innocent but were found guilty.

Yvonne Sleightholme fits into the group who have protested their innocence beyond their tariff. If she had not ‘denied her guilt’ she would have been allowed on rehabilitation courses. These would have been followed by a parole board and parole would have been considered. This should all have happened. Justice would at least appear to have been done. At present it definitely doesn’t appear to have been done and there is a chance it has not been done. In the words of the innocent youngster why?

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