Friday, December 18, 2009

Murder across the pond

Sounds like the title of a novel, doesn't it?

T'ain't. Now, being from across the Pond, I spend much of my life either consciously or subconsciously comparing my life now with the place where I grew up. And, being in the field of criminal law, I suppose it's natural that I would compare the two systems.

Now, a disclaimer, I was not a lawyer in England (though I was a newspaper reporter and I covered the crime beat) so I do not profess to be any kind of expert. Nor am I an academic (you've probably noticed) so you won't be getting an in-depth and flawless comparative study.

Rather, I wanted to share something I stumbled across while doing research for my new novel, which is set in England. It's a paper called "Minimum Terms in Murder Cases." Trust me, when you read my second novel (I predict publication to hugely popular and critical acclaim in 2011) you will see why I was looking at this.

Anyway, some interesting tidbits about the England/Wales murders themselves:
  • Reconviction rates for murderers are lower than for other offenders. (Perhaps obvious, and one wonders if it's because murderers tend to get out of prison when they are too old to murder. But there you have it.).
  • Typically, two thirds of the victims of homicide know the perpetrator before the
    offense takes place, and in two thirds of these cases the circumstances were a 'quarrel,
    revenge, or loss of temper'.
  • Across homicides as a whole, in only about 4-5% of cases does the perpetrator appear to have been mentally disturbed.
  • The most common method of killing is by use of a sharp instrument (around 30% of cases). Most other homicides are committed by hitting or kicking (around 15%) or use of a blunt
    instrument (around 12%), with the use of a gun being somewhat more rare (typically 8-
  • As far as victims are concerned, the age group most at risk is children under one
    year of age (82 victims per million of the population in 2000/01). After the first year of
    life children are rarely the victims of homicide, but for men aged between 16 and 30
    there are 33 victims per million, and for men aged between 30 and 50 there are 25
    victims per million. Persons aged over 50 are at low risk of becoming victims of a
So once the murders are solved and the buggers are caught, what then?

First, there is no death penalty in England and there hasn't been one since 1965.

Second, when a person aged 21 or over is convicted of murder, the only sentence available to a court in England and Wales is one of life imprisonment.

I will point out that most offenders sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in the UK do not actually remain in custody for life. There's a shock.

Anyway, here's how it works: in the case of an adult offender the trial judge will recommend the appropriate minimum term (aka the "tariff"), which is the minimum period necessary to meet the requirements of retribution and deterrence in the case. The trial judge's report goes to the Lord Chief Justice, who in turn makes a recommendation to the Home Secretary, with whom the final decision rests.

The Prison Service provided data on the 119 adult offenders who were released from mandatory life sentences during the year 2000. This information includes the minimum terms and the dates of conviction, sentence and release.
  • The lowest minimum term was 7 years (this offender was released 10 years after sentence);
  • The highest was 30 years (this offender was released 31 years after sentence);
  • The average minimum term was 12.6 years;
  • And the average time served from date of sentence was 14.3 years.
14.3 years. For murder.

Oh and between March 2002 and March 2003 there were 876 murders in England (60 million people).

How does the murder rate compare here? Well, in 2003 we have:
  • U.S.: 14,408 (population 291 million)
  • 9,638 by firearm
  • Texas: 1,422 (population 22.5 million)
And the average sentence served? Setting aside the death penalty, and seeing no hard and fast figure, it looks like it is roughly 17 years.

A little surprising, don't you think?


  1. Uh ... why in heaven's name are you surprised? In Texas, depending on the defendant, you can get probation for hiring an assassin to murder your spouse or even for murder, though woe be unto you if you engage in graffiti in Corpus Christi, throw beer at someone in Beeville or if your dog tragically attacks and kills your toddler in Luling, even if there's not intent. Then you might get serious time.

    Murderers and sex offenders have the lowest recidivism rates among violent felons both here and elsewhere. That's not a big surprise, either. In Texas their parole revocation rates are 1/3 that for robbery and agg assault; sex offenders are lower.

    As for sentence length, people age out of criminality after a certain point, and as an average 14+ years is probably about right to incapacitate long enough for safety purposes.

    What do you suppose these data tell us about the relative effectiveness of the death penalty or long sentences to reduce murder rates?

  2. Of course, they recently changed the law so that probation is no longer an option for murder.
    And I'm sure those in favor of longer sentences (and the death penalty) would point out that someone imprisoned for life or executed will not murder again (not true, I guess, they could murder someone in prison).
    I'm surprised to hear about the low recidivism for sex offenders, though. Very surprised.


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