Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, killed 13 women and attacked five others after claiming to have heard voices ordering him to kill prostitutes. In 1981 he was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years in prison and was placed in Broadmoor Hospital, a prison for the criminally insane, after a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
This week his lawyers, armed with the ringing endorsement from the hospital doctors that Sutcliffe is fit to be freed from Broadmoor and 'is effectively cured as long as he never stops taking his medication,' won a ruling from a high court judge that a hearing should be held to set the length of time he should serve before being eligible for parole.
The decision leads us to an uncomfortable appraisal of just what we expect from our prison system.
When a judge sentences a member of society who break the law of the land to be jailed, is it as punishment, in order to be rehabilitated or just as a place to send them to remove them from society for a length of time?
Is the 15 to 30 years of a life sentence the amount of time a judge considers long enough for a criminal to "repay his debt to society' or is the thinking that this is the amount of time that a certain prisoner would take until he is suitably ready to rejoin society and not be a liability?"
If you see prison as a punishment or a rehabilitation centre, then at some point we are going to face the same decisions as we do now with Peter Sutcliffe who has almost served the minimum period and who doctors say is 'cured' of the illness that made him a serial killer.
If we see prisons as a place to hold the unsavoury members of society until they are deemed fit to rejoin the rest of us, then we still face the same problems when the time imposed is up.