THE Scottish Tories have been accused of trying to bring in the death penalty in all but name.

Plans to keep Scotland’s worst offenders in jail for the whole of their lives have been described as regressive and problematic by two of the country’s leading criminologists.

Dr Hannah Graham and Professor Fergus McNeill from the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research say Liam Kerr’s Whole Life Custody (Scotland) Bill risks undermining the distinction between justice and vengeance.

Holyrood is currently holding a consultation into the proposed legislation.

Kerr says it will bring the law into line with England and Wales, as well as making sure the punishment fits the crime, guarantee public safety, and bolster public confidence in criminal justice.

While Scottish courts can sentence offenders to life, all prisoners are automatically eligible for parole once the “punishment part” of their sentence has passed.

The proposal is to bring in lifelong jail terms for the very worst murderers, including those convicted of killing two or more persons, or a child, or a police or prison officer in the course of their duty.

Kerr’s consultation also floats the possibility of bringing in whole-life sentences for people who have raped two or more persons or a young child.

In their response, Graham and McNeill say existing arrangements in Scotland “for dealing with those convicted of very serious and harmful crimes are more than adequate”.

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They say the Parole Board for Scotland and Scottish Ministers are “already empowered to prevent the release – until death if necessary – of life sentence prisoners considered to be a continuing risk to the public, and to recall to custody anyone who has been released under lifelong conditions whose behaviour or even attitude causes concern”.

The academics cite experts in the UK and US who categorise whole-life sentences as equivalent to the death penalty.

Graham and McNeill write: “Like other forms of killing, sentencing people to die in custody denies and ultimately extinguishes human dignity.

“Upholding the principle of human dignity – for everyone, for all human life – even and especially in the wake of profound wrongs, harms and tragedies, is integral to justice and what it means to be a progressive, rights-respecting nation.

“It is part of what distinguishes justice from vengeance. Liam Kerr’s whole-life custody proposal risks undermining that principle and that distinction.

“The worst act of an individual should not bring out the worst in us as a nation.

McNeill continued: “Escalations of vengeance in the wake of distressing crimes with tragic consequences won’t produce fairness nor bring back what was lost.

Kerr said the status quo was letting victims down: “This bill gives judges the power to keep the very worst offenders in prison for the rest of their lives.

“Too often victims tell us about their frustration and confusion over short sentences, early release and parole hearings that fail to take their suffering into account.

“The worst offenders should be in no doubt that they face the severest consequences for their actions – jail for the rest of their lives.

“The SNP’s soft touch justice agenda has been letting down victims for too long.Giving judges this option will keep the public safer and give victims the justice they deserve.”

MSPs rejected the plans back in June when they were discussed during an opposition day debate at Holyrood.