The Observer view on the release of ‘cop killer’ Harry Roberts
The clamour to keep Harry Roberts, 78, in jail is wrong-headed
The Parole Board for England and Wales has said Harry Roberts, who killed two police officers in London in 1966, can be released. Photograph: PA
The imminent release of Harry Roberts, jailed in 1966 for shooting dead two police officers in cold blood, has prompted widespread revulsion. For the families of the slain men it has dragged up painful memories. For police officers, it has served as a reminder of the ultimate price that some of them pay. And for politicians it has provided a platform to express outrage. The home secretary, Theresa May, has repeated her pledge to introduce a law that ensures “cop killers” die in jail.
Sentencing him to a minimum of 30 years, the judge, Mr Justice Glyn-Jones, said Roberts had committed the “most heinous crime for a generation or more”. The additional 18 years that Roberts has served reflects the lack of remorse he has shown for his actions.
But this is not to say he should never be released. A prison sentence is as much about rehabilitation as it is about punishment. To suggest that the murderers of police officers are somehow different from terrorists or others who have taken lives is illogical.
It would also undermine the parole board for England and Wales, the independent body that assesses when prisoners can be released. It is hard to see how a criminal justice system can function without such a body. Some will argue that the killers of police officers should be made examples of, in order to send a clear message to society. But where to draw the line? Is the life of a policeman worth more than that, say, of a prison officer?
Ultimately, as the former Met commissioner, Lord Condon, has argued, a mandatory whole life sentence will put police officers at greater risk. Someone who has killed one policeman knows that they will spend the rest of their lives in jail. Put bluntly, they have nothing left to lose by going on a killing spree. And that makes them more dangerous to police officers. The parole board has decided Roberts, 78, is no longer dangerous. Let him out.