Belfast Telegraph

Prison release scheme fraught with difficulty

Editor's Viewpoint

It is easy to understand the anger of Sylvia Fleming's family - the Omagh teenager savagely murdered in 1998 - when they learned that her killer, Stephen Scott, was walking the streets on a pre-release scheme.

The murder may have happened 19 years ago, and given its grotesque nature, it is understandable that the family feel Scott should have received a whole life term. They do not believe he is remorseful for his actions, even though he has written to them apologising for the killing.

What this case highlights is the impossible task of the legal system delivering justice which satisfies both the law and the feelings of those bereaved by a murderer.

The pre-release scheme allows prisoners nearing the end of their sentence to receive structured leave to prepare them for the day the walk out of jail.

In deciding whether to grant a prisoner with a life sentence temporary release, the authorities must take into consideration the potential risk to the public and the impact on the victims.

It can be argued that for some relatives any release date would be too soon. They feel that life should mean life, and many in society would echo that sentiment.

Yet the law must act according to established guidelines and accepted tariffs, given the nature of the crime and the behaviour of the person charged.

Prison is both a punishment and a potential place of rehabilitation. Whatever the feelings of the bereaved, even those guilty of murder are entitled to be given the opportunity to repent and change their ways.

However, many people will be amazed at the number of convicted killers who have applied for temporary release in recent years.

According to official figures, an average of around 85 convicted murderers are granted temporary release each year. Each case will be decided on its merits but inevitably a release date will loom.

In those circumstances the bereaved relatives of the victims must be informed that the prisoner is out, even on a temporary basis.

In one shocking case, the widow of a police officer who was shot dead when visiting her and their newborn child in hospital literally came across his killer on the street near her home.

Relatives may feel that the scales of justice are weighted against them. Justice is not perfect but it must be tempered with mercy for those affected by a crime like murder.

Belfast Telegraph

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