Sam – Year 13 Student
Editor’s Note: This essay forms part of a collection of student works published in the 2020 edition of Salutaris, the GSAL Sixth Form academic journal. This is the first time that this piece of work has been published online. CPD
On February 26th 2020, the Queen signified her royal assent to the following legislation: ‘Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Act 2020’. In essence, this act ensures that those who have committed acts of terrorism can only be considered eligible for release after serving at least two-thirds of their sentence. This differs from the conventional automatic process that applies to other offenders in which convicts are automatically released half-way through their sentence.
The significance of this act is relatively straightforward but carries with it an important question about the human rights of prisoners, specifically, whether you can retroactively alter prison sentences. Known as ‘Ex post facto law’, changing the punishment prescribed for a crime and then enforcing these changes for current convicts is generally thought to be illegitimate. It is even explicitly prohibited in many countries, most notably in the United States where the constitution forbids any such law from being passed.
The United Kingdom’s complex relationship with the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) tells a different story, however. Despite retroactive laws being forbidden by this convention, the UK’s parliamentary sovereignty allows our parliament to not be bound by written law or by precedent. Therefore, while the Terrorist Offenders Act may disagree with certain human rights law, it is within our Government’s rights to create such legislation and bypass the ECHR entirely. Alternatively, some argue that this act doesn’t impose on the convention at all for the reason that everyone has the right to serve the prison sentence they were given. Lord Anderson, a former independent reviewer of terror legislation, said- “The new provisions are likely to survive legal challenge so long as they do not change the total sentence, but just the arrangements for how it is to be served.”
This emergency legislation comes into effect following attacks by men twice convicted of terror offences. The most recent case being a man who injured three people in south London following his release, after serving half of his sentence of three years and four months for terror offences. Another, more severe attack, was committed towards the end of last year, that left two people killed and three more injured by a criminal who was released just eight years into his 16 year sentence. The simple fact that those convicted of terrorist offences can be released and then proceed to commit crimes proves that there is a threat to the public brought about by the release of such criminals, but we should ask whether forcing all terrorists to serve at least two-thirds of their sentence is a proportionate response to the issue.
Out of the 235 terrorists who have been released since 2012, the two cases described above were the only times that offenders had committed a second act of terrorism. Compared to non-terrorist criminals this is relatively very low, with regular criminals tending to reoffend around 30% of the time after serving a sentence of 12 months or more. This does, however, ignore the severity of crimes that were committed following release. The terrorists’ second offences resulted in five injured and two dead, whereas other cases involving reoffenders very rarely involve homicide. The two deaths made up 0.3% of all UK homicides in 2019, suggesting that despite their rarity, terrorist offences are generally more severe and harmful to society than those performed by others.
While supporting a retroactive law that more harshly enforces sentences may conflict in principle with the European Convention of Human Rights, I would say that the UK’s parliamentary sovereignty and the attempt to protect the citizens of the UK justifies the “Terrorist Offenders Act 2020” entirely. It is in the interest of a Government to protect its people, and this is well achieved through the compulsory serving time of at least two-thirds of a prison sentence. The risk to society is better averted and hopes to provide a longer time to more thoroughly rehabilitate those who have conspired to commit serious offences, or followed through on such offences and actually caused significant harm to their fellow citizens. It is of my opinion that this act is in the interest of public safety and provides a larger deterrent to commit terrorist offences. Provided that the human rights of criminals are preserved, I feel it is fair and just to keep terrorists in prison for a longer time if it is in the name of keeping the citizens of the UK safe.