EU court: Life without parole is "inhuman and degrading"

Here in the US, we have debates over the appropriateness and application of the death penalty, so we haven’t yet started any debate over its usual replacement, life without possibility of parole.  Europe has mainly eliminated the death penalty, which should have left them free to focus on other legal and law-enforcement issues. Instead, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK violated the EU charter’s Article 3 by imposing life without parole — called “whole life” in the EU in three cases:

Whole-life jail sentences without any prospect of release amount to inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners, the European court of human rights has ruled.

The landmark judgment will set the ECHR on a fresh collision course with the UK government but does not mean that any of the applicants – the convicted murderers Jeremy Bamber, Peter Moore and Douglas Vinter – are likely to be released soon.

In its decision, the Strasbourg court said there had been a violation of article 3 of the European convention on human rights, which prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment.

The judgment said: “For a life sentence to remain compatible with article 3 there had to be both a possibility of release and a possibility of review.”

The court emphasised, however, that “the finding of a violation in the applicants’ cases should not be understood as giving them any prospect of imminent release. Whether or not they should be released would depend, for example, on whether there were still legitimate penological grounds for their continued detention and whether they should continue to be detained on grounds of dangerousness. These questions were not in issue.”

Life without parole developed — at least in the US — as a means to give the state an option to the death penalty.  Rather than have the state kill dangerous murderers and violent convicts, juries instead could ensure that these defendants would never be released into society again, save for a pardon or commutation from a governor, who would be politically liable for such actions.  That ended the perceived turnstiles at the gates of prisons where violent felons got released into society by overly sympathetic parole boards and, in some cases, state-sanctioned killings through the death penalty.

Is life without parole a rational outcome? Take a look at the cases at hand in this ECHR ruling, which is legally enforceable in the UK:

The appeal was brought by Vinter, who murdered a colleague in 1996 and after being released stabbed his wife in 2008; Bamber, now 51, who killed his parents, his sister Sheila Cafell and her two young children in 1985; and Moore, who killed four gay men for his sexual gratification in 1995.

One is a family annihilator, and another a serial killer who targeted gays.  The third got a release after his first murder just to murder again.  Amazingly, the EU appellate court ruled by a 16-1 decision that Vinter’s human rights had been violated and awarded him €40,000 for it.   Had the decision rested on the individual merits of the prosecution — Bamber insists he’s innocent of the crime, for instance — then demanding judicial review for parole might have made some sense.  Instead, the ECHR has broadly eliminated “whole life” altogether.

My colleague Jeb Golonkin at The Week is mystified by the reasoning:

It’s difficult to figure out what bodies of law or precedent this purportedly legal body looked to to discern the meaning of “inhumane and degrading.” It certainly is not history, nor is it the European convention on human rights, because, well, it’s been around a bit and the court is only now coming round to making this rather remarkable declaration. Even applying the modern “evolving standards of decency” test, which the Supreme Court of the United States uses to measure the propriety of a punishment, one has to wonder whether there is a society on Earth where more than a small minority of people believes that no crime exists that is so reprehensible that the perpetrator at least ought to go to jail knowing that he has no hope of ever being a free man again.

If you want to know why many Americans are fundamentally suspicious of international law and the tribunals that purport to enforce it, this decision offers a good example. There are legitimate arguments to be made about imposing life sentences on minors (see Frontline‘s “When Kids Get Life” for a fantastic look at the problems), but the idea that a convicted murderer must always have the opportunity to win his freedom no matter the circumstances is a startling proposition.

Indeed. And this could give new impetus to death-penalty proponents who might worry that American courts might be tempted to make the same ruling based on the Eighth Amendment proscription on cruel and unusual punishment.