There’s a limit to age-based mitigation

Picture of Jill Barclay, a middle-aged white woman with long blonde hair. She is at a night-time event and is smiling.
Jill Barclay, raped and murdered in Aberdeen in 2022. Her killer’s minimum sentence was reduced by five years because of his age.

Recently there have been a series of controversial cases in Scotland, where men have had their sentences for extremely violent crimes reduced because they were under 25 when they committed the acts on the basis of guidelines introduced in January 2022, under which rehabilitation is the primary objective. Prison sentences are only to be issued “when the court is satisfied that no other sentence would be appropriate”, and if issued is to be shorter than one given to an older offender for the same crime. Judges are expected to take into account the offender’s life circumstances, including “addiction, physical and mental health, trauma, adverse childhood experiences, and their living environment”. The controversies include a rapist, Sean Hogg, who was sentenced to a “community payback” order requiring 270 hours of unpaid labour for the repeated rape and sexual assault of a girl, then aged 13, in a park in the Spring of 2018, when he was 17, and a man who raped and murdered a woman (note: graphic and potentially distressing detail in the story) in Aberdeen who was given a minimum of 24 years because of his age and guilty plea, rather than the 29-year minimum he would have received if older. (This is still a life sentence, but life sentence prisoners are usually released under supervision after a set period.)

I would normally be in favour of a system like this if it applied to young people who had become involved in crime as a result of being easily led, or having grown up in an area where it is difficult to stay out of trouble, or of being bullied at school or abused at home. We do not want a situation such as they have in the USA where there are men serving life sentences for playing minor roles, such as lookouts, in robberies where someone was killed, and there is no need for them to know someone is armed and the killing may have taken place after they were arrested. In England, it has become normal for young men to be sentenced to much longer for a gang-related street shooting because of the use of a gun in the street than an abusive husband or boyfriend would be for strangling his partner at home, because tariffs (the minimum time to be served for someone given a life sentenced) were increased for murders that involved a weapon being used in public (in response to outrages fomented by the media) but not for murders carried out at home even though they may have involved considerably greater levels of cruelty and suffering and followed years of abuse.

However, neither youth nor any number of excuses related to life circumstances or past trauma should not result in a sentence reduction for crimes that involve significant premeditated cruelty such as the Aberdeen rape/murder, or for repeated, premeditated sexual assaults. The man responsible for Jill Barclay’s murder in Aberdeen, who did not know his victim, would be a serial killer if he had not been caught early, and should not be sentenced as if this was a mere youthful indiscretion but as a serious danger to the public, to women especially, who must be kept behind bars for everyone’s safety for the foreseeable future. Rapists must be sentenced with the victim’s trauma, and the effect on her health in the years to come, in mind rather than misplaced sympathy for a youthful repeat offender. Rehabilitation should only be the primary concern when the offending is relatively minor, or clearly influenced by poverty or recent abuse, none of which is the case with these crimes.

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