“It’s not long enough” – Mick Philpott, Sentencing Policy, and Public Criminology
Last week saw the sentencing of Derby man Mick Philpott, his wife Mairead, and friend Paul Mosley for the manslaughter of the Philpott’s six children in a house fire last May. The story has naturally captured the public’s imagination and bought to the fore several debates about the UK’s approach to sentencing and the Welfare State. In this post, I try to unpack some of the pertinent issue and address some of the misconceptions being reinforced by recent press reporting of this case.
The Manslaughter of Six Innocent Children
Mick Philpott’s living arrangements – unemployed and living with two different women, along with 11 children – have been widely publicised and commented on. His wife, Mairead, and his lover Lisa Willis, took it in turns to sleep with him in their caravan on alternate nights, and this was covered in a 2007 edition of The Jeremy Kyle Show – a ‘reality TV’ programme that is tantamount to human bear-baiting, designed to put some of Britain’s most desperate people on television, playing out their out-of-control lives for the satisfaction and pleasure of those in more fortunate, if not perfect, positions.
When Lisa Willis left the home last February, Mick Philpott sought to reclaim her presence (and her child benefit money) through a host of different strategies, such as “sweet talking … cajoling … and bullying”, according the Mrs Justice Thirlwall’s sentencing remarks. When she didn’t he hatched a wicked plan in order to blame her for a crime she didn’t commit – that of arson against her former family home, such that she would be prosecuted and Mick would obtain custody of the five children with whom Lisa left.
Mick Philpott was responsible for dousing his hallway in petrol and setting it alight. The Crown accepted that he had not intended to kill his children, or even to cause them significant physical harm, and subsequently charged the three co-defendants with manslaughter as opposed to murder, with the assertion being that Mr Philpott had planned to enter the house, rescue the children, and be considered a local hero. This unfortunately went horribly wrong, no rescue attempt was possible, and the six children inside tragically died.
Many people have commented on the sentence being handed down to these offenders – particularly the one given to Mick Philpott. The sentences passed were as follows:
- Mick Philpott – Life imprisonment with a minimum term of 15 years
- Mairead Philpott – 17 years imprisonment
- Paul Mosley – 17 years imprisonment
These sentences, when set against the context of the unlawful killing of six innocent children, have been described as too lenient by some members of the public, with others on the social networking site Twitter calling for a reintroduction of capital punishment for child killers.
However, it should be noted that the judge, Mrs Justice Thirlwall, passed the maximum sentence possible for manslaughter. Life imprisonment is the most severe punishment available for this index offence and, in setting the minimum tariff to be served by Mick Philpott, she stated:
The law requires me to impose a period of years that you will serve before you are considered for parole. To reach that period I must identify the determinate sentence you would have served had I not imposed a life sentence. The determinate sentence would have been one of 30 years’ imprisonment. I am required by parliament to halve that to reflect that were this a determinate sentence you would serve only half. The minimum period you must therefore serve before you are considered for parole is one of 15 years. From that I deduct 307 days to reflect the time you have already served on remand to give a term of 14 years and 58 days. Whether or not you are ever released will be a matter for the parole board.
Whole-life sentences, whereby “life means life” and there is no possibility for parole, is one option being mooted as a compromise between life sentences and the death penalty. This case is certainly one that shakes my own personal beliefs, but I reassert that the idea of whole-life tariffs raise some serious concerns. My view of prisons is that they should be fundamentally places for reformation and rehabilitation. I have written previously that only the most dangerous criminals should be given prison terms (a theory supported by the risk-need-responsivity model of offender rehabilitation) – and that it is only by doing this that you can focus on doing intensive therapeutic work without passing on “tricks of the trade” to lesser criminals, such as those with acquisitive or public order offences.
Politically, though, it is wise for the Government to continue the trend of increasing the number of prisoners serving long or whole-life sentences. This satisfies a certain Lombrosian culture that seems to fester in the vast majority of criminal justice rhetoric in the UK, and the concept of whole-life sentences seems to support this ideology by suggesting that some violent offenders are beyond help.
Another important point to raise is that, if a prisoner knows there is no chance of release, what do they have to lose? They may as well behave however they like, and, with few opportunities for rehabilitation (why waste money of offending behaviour programmes on those beyond help?), prisoners on whole-life sentences have the perfect excuse to take their frustrations out on other inmates, or indeed police officers. The press would no doubt report these incidents as ‘proof’ that these “beasts” should be locked up for the rest of their days – but they actually contribute to these events.
There have also been complaints about the fact that, if their sentences run as planned, Mairead Philpott and Paul Mosley will be “out in 8 years”. Whilst it is true that these two will be released from prison-based custody at the half-way point of their respective 17 year sentences, it is not the case that they will be completely free, as some media outlets and commentators would lead you to believe. Any offender that is released prior to the end of their allotted tariff must serve up until the end of their sentence on licence – where they are still subject to strict sanctions which, if broken, could still lead the to be recalled to prison. This licence period lasts until the end of the originally passed sentence (or for life, in the case of a life sentenced prisoner), and is accompanied by a variety of restrictions, including curfews and electronic tagging. To suggest that those on licence are as free as the rest of us is a misleading fallacy.
All in all, I feel that the sentences passed are fair, and take into account the varying factors relating to each individual defendant. Mick Philpott is clearly a controlling and callous individual with his own self-interest at the heart of everything he does, and the fact that he has received the maximum possible sentence for his actions is absolutely right.
My only hope is that those involved in criminology and criminal justice engage better with the public and the media to allow for more balanced, evidence-based, and factual accounts of the sentencing process to be produced.
Craig Harper is a postgraduate student of forensic psychology based at the University of Lincoln, UK. His research interests lie in desistance from crime, offender reintegration and public criminology.
Visit his website at http://lincpsychuk.wordpress.com.