In November 1983 Lynda Mann took a shortcut on her way home from babysitting instead of taking her normal route home. The next day she was found raped and strangled. On 31st July 1986, 15-year-old Dawn Ashworth left her home to visit a friend’s house. Two days later her body was found raped and strangled.
In January 1988 Colin Pitchfork, then 28, was convicted of the murder and rape of the two girls and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was the first person in the UK to be convicted in this way using DNA evidence.
Apart from the family and friends of the two girls, that was the end of the matter. Justice had been done; everybody else could go on with their lives.
More than 7,000 people are currently serving life sentences in England and Wales, more than twice as many people as France, Germany and Italy combined – the highest in Europe by a long way.
The average length of a life sentence before early release is 15 years. However, there are currently 68 people in prison who are expected never to be released.
Colin Pitchfork was guilty; nobody has ever claimed otherwise. His case is not a miscarriage of justice. And yet it has become a matter of public debate in recent days. I first noticed it as it scrolled past on Sky News.
You might think that you don’t care much about people like Colin Pitchfork, that he is a “monster” and locking him up and throwing away the key is all he deserves. Many readers of Critical Mass would no doubt agree with you. He appears to have no redeeming factors.
Why he is suddenly in the news is because the Parole Board, whose job it is to decide whether he remains a risk to the public, have recommended him for parole. This means he would be out on licence and could be sent back to prison at any moment if he contravenes the terms of his licence.
In a press release the Parole Board said: “Protecting the public is our number one priority, however our sole focus in law is risk, not punishment, and must be based on evidence.” Predictably, the government does not agree and equally predictably the tabloids are raging about the decision.
Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk has said previously: “We all want to know that depraved criminals convicted of the worst violent and sexual crimes will be kept behind bars for as long as is necessary.”
In 2022 the government amended the rules for the Parole Board to give ministers a say in deciding the release of “top tier” offenders.
Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, issued a statement at the time calling the changes unfair. He points out that until the 1980s ministers had a say on the release of people serving “indeterminate sentences”, and this was changed because the European Court of Human Rights concluded that politicians were unable to show either independence in decision-making or did not have procedural guidelines which determined that decisions were taken objectively.
So this case is not about whether Colin Pitchfork is a “monster” or not. It is about the concept of fairness in the justice system. It is about ensuring that politicians, with one eye on winning the votes of those crying out for vengeance rather than justice, are kept out of the decision-making process. It is not about ignoring the rights of victims but of ensuring that, as a civilised society, we have a justice system that is fair and not manipulated by politicians for their own narrow ends.
As Peter Dawson says: “Fairness in criminal justice isn’t about who attracts the most public disgust or sympathy, or a competition between prisoner and victim – it’s about the just treatment of both.” Surely, as socialists, we have to agree.
Our system of justice is under threat. Julian Assange, who has done nothing wrong, passed his fifth year in jail on his 52nd birthday this week. Asylum seekers are kept in terrible conditions or threatened with being deported to Rwanda merely for trying to find a better life. These are a long way from Colin Pitchfork, but if we believe in justice we have to believe in it for those we abhor not just those we support. And perhaps that is what the Colin Pitchfork case should remind us. There are hundreds of cases brought to the Parole Board every year. Their re-offending rate is less than 1 in 100, whereas general re-offending rates are still around 50%. Still too many of course. But let’s see behind the headlines and understand that this is not about one heinous individual but about the government, bit by bit, eroding what was once a proud tradition of British justice.
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