By Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., & David Prescott, LICSW.
NOTE: It is important to state that the authors have no more information on the risk posed by Colin Pitchfork than has been released into the public domain. The aim of this blog is not to challenge or validate any decisions that have been made, rather to debate the question of change and, ultimately desistence, in high-risk individuals – Kieran
Earlier this week it was announced that Colin Pitchfork, one of the UK’s most notorious child killers would be released from prison back into the community after the parole board stated that it was safe to return him to the community. As well as killing his victims, Pitchfork also sexually assaulted and raped them. At the time of his offence and conviction his case made national headlines, which has not abated during his time in the prison system and all his parole hearings as well as appeals. The Pitchfork case presents a challenge between evidence, practices, public opinion, and “politics” and in doing so reminds us of the mantra, and challenge laid down by Karl Hanson that not all high-risk offenders will always remain high risk.
The balancing act in the pitchfork case is multi-layered and complicated, involving the nature of his offence, the public and political reaction, media commentary, trust in the state to manage people after their release and a fundamental question of whether we believe that people can change. To start to understand the complexity we need to pick apart the social, political, and cultural dimensions that surround the case.
The offence: Colin Pitchfork raped and murdered two schoolgirls in the 1980s in Leicester England. They where Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth, both 15, in 1983 and 1986 respectively. The offences while harrowing, are particularly salient given the nature of the crimes and victims. These events have provoked public and political reactions, creating, and reinforcing stereotypes and misperceptions about the reality of these offences as well as the people who perpetrate them. One reason that this case made national headlines was that Pitchfork was the first person in the UK to be convicted, in 1988, by use of DNA evidence. At the time of conviction, he was sentenced to two life sentences, 30 years in the UK, to be executed simultaneously, which meant that it was initially due for release in 2018.
Public and political reaction: Given the nature of the crime and the conditions of the conviction, and international media coverage at the time, Pitchfork’s case was in the public and political interest. This resulted in many consecutive Secretaries of State becoming involved, right up to and including the current one. Currently, the Ministry of Justice and Robert Buckland, MP, has come out and said that they are disappointed by Pitchfork’s release and are considering a root and branch review of the parole board and their decision-making processes. This adds complexity to the case; it reinforces public concerns (that can often be laden with misconceptions) and calls into question professional standards and decision-making processes. It begs the question of whether high profile offenders should, could, and are being treated differently than other offenders because of the reaction that their release creates.
Media commentary: The media’s close attention to the case often highlighted the salacious nature of Pitchfork’s offending behaviour, especially at key points in the trial, sentencing, and previous attempts at release. The media have often reinforced the public and political view that pitchfork is a constant and unrelenting threat, and therefore he should not be released. No counterpoint has examined the legitimacy of the potential risk management plans, the risk assessment, or the expertise of the professionals responsible for these decisions. The media often state that they are following and discussing the story because it’s in the public interest. The real question, however, is whether they are framing the story in a way that is in the public interest.
Practice and evidence base: The extant research and practice evidence bases highlight that people can and do change, especially over the course of many decades and as they age. They very often desist from further crime and community as well as social support often help in this. This knowledge base includes not only people who have committed sexual offences and murders but also other people who have committed serious offences that have resulted in life sentences. The reality is that Pitchfork was given a life sentence (i.e., 30 years) and not a whole life tariff (i.e., that he would die in prison). Therefore, there has always been the expectation that he would be moving towards release and community integration at some point. We can see through his time in prison that this was the objective, especially given the treatment and rehabilitation programs that he attended as well as the fact that was moved to an open prison towards the end of his sentence. Additionally, Pitchfork has had an extensive and restrictive risk management plan developed as part of his release, highlighting the centrality of community safeguarding and public protection in his release from prison. All of this raises the question of whether the real issue is whether the sentence, tariff, and process are not what the public, media, and politicians wanted. After all, the prison service and parole board’s methods are obliged to be in line with the evidence base.
The Colin Pitchfork case creates more questions than it answers. It begs the question of whether the public, political, and media reactions are based on the nature of the crime and the perceived nature of punishment required. Looking at the evidence base, HMPPS and the parole board have delivered what they were meant to and that they have worked towards. If society at large is not happy with that, then the question needs to be asked if it is more that they are not happy with the sentence, tariff, or processes involved rather than what has currently been delivered. Therefore, we need to reflect upon the public and political perceptions of punishment, rehabilitation, risk assessment, and risk management versus the evidence-based reality of practice in this area. How do we bring perception and reality closer together? How do we create an informed, evidenced understanding of the challenges and processes involved in successful (risk) management of high-profile cases?