London Bridge aftermath: Should prisoners ever be released early?


On 29th November, Usman Khan launched a knife attack on London Bridge, killing two members of the public, Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, and wounding three others. Khan was shot and killed on the scene of the crime, which has since been labelled a terrorist attack. 

What has caused outrage is that Khan was an early released prisoner on licence. Furthermore, he was convicted in January 2012 for terror-related crimes. But he was automatically released in December 2018, less than seven years into his 16-year sentence. 

The event raised questions among the public. Namely, how could this have happened? How could a convicted terrorist have slipped through the cracks of the justice system? 

Let’s try to get to the bottom of it. 


Firstly, what exactly happened and how? 

2008 – Labour government set up the automatic early release scheme, meaning that prisoners would be released halfway through their fixed term prison sentences without need for review from the Parole Board, and spend the rest of their sentence on licence. On licence, convicts must wear an electronic tag, adhere to certain conditions and curfews, and regularly report to a probation officer. They can be recalled to prison at any point on licence.


January 2012  Khan was convicted of terrorist activity and sentenced to an indeterminate IPP (Imprisonment for Public Protection). Khan and twoother men were arrested for making plans for recruiting British people and forming a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. 


December 2012  Conservative-Liberal coalition government changed the laws again, so that those serving more than 10 years could only be released after serving at least two thirds of their sentence, and with the approval of a parole board.


2013 – Khan appeals his sentence and it was changed toan “extended sentence” of 16 years in prison with automatic release after 8 years. Since Khan was convicted before the Conservative-Liberal government’s changes, these new laws didn’t apply to him retrospectively and so his sentence was still under the automatic release scheme.


December 2018  Khan was released from prison on licence, with a probation officer monitoring him, as well as conditions he had to follow and an electronic tag he had to wear at all times, otherwise he could be recalled to prison at any time. He would have remained on licence for 13 years after release.


29 November 2019 – while attending a Cambridge University conference on prisoner rehabilitation, Khan stormed out of the event at Fishmongers’ Hall and attacked innocent people with a knife on London Bridge.



So, should we stop early release of prisoners altogether? 

Since Khan was released early from prison and on licence when he committed the attack, many people have begun questioning early release as an idea altogether. After all, if Khan hadn’t been released so soon, he would have still been serving time behind bars on the 29 November instead of killing two innocent members of the public. 

Many argue that the entire concept of early release belittles the time and effort put in by juries and judges to decide on an appropriate sentence. Not only that, but it costs the government a lot of money to put together trials, and early release entirely defeats the purpose of that. 

Not only that, but upon early release of an offender, there is often a feeling of injustice from the victim/victim’s family. This can cause severe emotional stress and sometimes outrage against the prison system for letting a criminal walk free before the time that the victims had been promised is up. 

Public safety is a very important factor when arguing against early release schemes. Many believe that criminals should be incarcerated for as long as their sentence in order to protect the public and ensure that they have changed their ways by the time they are released, or at least won’t offend again as to avoid more prison time. However, as Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, noted, “the more you punish someone, the harder you make it for them to change their lives.” Khan’s motives hadn’t been swayed after 7 years in prison, who’s to say they could have changed after 16 years? The rates of recidivism show us that serving time in jail doesn’t magically improve a person’s outlook on life or their likeliness to be a law-abiding citizen. Often, it does the opposite. After 16 years in prison, Khan could have done something like, or even worse than, the London Bridge knife attack, so either way, public safety is sadly insecure.

Financially, ending early release altogether would cost the government a lot of expenses, from more prisons needing to be built, to more staff hired and resources supplied. Having prisoners on licence is much less expensive than incarcerating them, so when prisoners are released early, the government is able to spend less on prisons and potentially more on other key systems such as the NHS, infrastructure, education, and social aid. 


What now?

Even before this terrorist attack, the now successful Tory party outlined its intention to lock down on imprisonment, reduce early releases, and create 10,000 more prison places toensure that the streets are kept safe. 

Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, stated that he still agrees with early release when “they’ve been rehabilitated, have been suitably assessed and they are very strictly monitored when they come out” believing it is the “correct way of doing things.” He emphasised, however, that “there are enormous questions to be learned from this terrible event that happened last week and that is, what happened in the prison with this particular individual, what assessment was made of his psychological condition before he was released and also what supervision and monitoring he was under after coming out?” 


After the horrific events that unravelled on London Bridge that day, it seems clear that early release of prisoners isn’t theonly problem. Was Khan supported correctly during his time in prison? And when he came out of prison, did he receive enough support to integrate back into society after seven years in jail? These are the questions we should be asking. 

Blaming Khan’s actions entirely on his early release is an empty solution to a much bigger problem. We need to improve the quality of rehabilitation available both in and outside of prisons: That is where we will find the answers.

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