Retribution or restitution? The dilemma of life sentences

The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that whole-life jail sentences without any prospect of release amount to "inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners" has caused predictable outrage.

One newspaper described it as "an assault on British justice and democracy" – while another apparently labelled it as "a victory for evil".

From a Christian perspective, there may be those who see this as an example of aloof and remote secular European judges cutting further away at the Judaeo-Christian heritage of British justice.

But as is so often the case, media headlines can be more than misleading. In fact, the European Court has not said that there should be no whole-life sentences any more. Nor, as Dr Michael Banner pointed out on Radio 4's Thought for the Day, does it require that any particular prisoner should be released.

He explained: "What it requires is only that any life sentence should be subject to review after a reasonable period such as 25 years. At that point, the justification for the original detention – for the sake of punishment, deterrence or public protection – should be re-examined to see whether it still holds good, as of course it may. It doesn't make a great headline, but as the court points out, the review of sentence it requires was normal practice in the UK until 2003."

Furthermore, as one leading criminal law solicitor said: "A right to have the sentence reviewed is quite different from a right to be released, and the number of prisoners affected is tiny – 49."

In British law, a whole-life tariff is, in some ways, the sentence which the former death penalty evolved into after it was abolished: it is the ultimate sanction for very serious crime. And, like the death penalty, if "life means life" as it is sometimes claimed should be the case, then there is no way back for the prisoner.

In the Old Testament there was, of course, the possibility of the death sentence for some crimes. But what is often forgotten is that even then, two or three eye-witnesses of the offence were required, so that no-one could be convicted by hearsay or as a result of a personal vendetta. As Deuteronomy 17v6 says: "No one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness."

Moreover, as we know, the Old Testament, with its complex mixture of civil law (for a nation in a totally different context from today), ceremonial law (which was fulfilled in the person and work of Christ) and moral law (which is of more permanent application) all has to be interpreted in the light of the New Testament and in particular in the light of what Jesus has said and done.

The classic example of how he deals with someone facing the possibility of the death penalty is the incident in which a woman caught in adultery is brought before him. Neatly side-stepping the trap laid for him by his opponents, Jesus announces: "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." At this, they slink away. "Has no-one condemned you?" Jesus asks the woman. "Well, neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on leave your life of sin."

For the follower of Christ, punishment is never simply retribution. While public protection may be vital, a Christian justice ethic always includes the possibility of repentance, redemption and even rehabilitation.

So if we were picking up metaphorical stones to throw at the European Court, perhaps it is time to put them down.