Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Sentencing Mess Is Ministers' Fault

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Sentencing Mess Is Ministers' Fault

Article excerpt

BY RALLYING to the defence of the judges, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, has highlighted the weaknesses in the Government's sentencing policy as well as the divisions in the Cabinet. Effectively siding with the Attorney General against the Home Secretary's criticisms of over-lenient sentencing in the Craig Sweeney case, he responds: "The problem is not the judges, the problem is the system." Lord Falconer says difficulties with sentencing go back 30 years and are to do with the guidelines laid down by successive administrations.

Yet the Government has had nearly a decade to deal with sentencing guidelines, during which time it has passed dozens of pieces of criminal justice legislation. In blaming "the system", the Lord Chancellor thus ignores Labour's own part in the problem.

The problems in the Sweeney case are a perfect illustration of this. Under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, itself largely an effort to clarify early- release guidelines dating from the Nineties, a judge is required to pass a life sentence if there is a real risk a serious offender may re-offend. The judge has to specify the minimum period, or tariff, after which the prisoner may be considered for early release. But the sentence is reduced by a third if the offender has pleaded guilty, no matter what the circumstances of the case - another provision of the Act, put in for different reasons. In other words, this was yet another piece of hasty crime legislation, with too much packed into one Bill and not enough thought given to predictable consequences.

And, in any case, even serious offenders are released almost automatically after serving half their sentences. As the chief inspector of probation recently pointed out, the Parole Board tends to approach decisions about releasing lifers on the basis of "when", not "if ".

All this is a matter of Government policy. Ministers must act to straighten out the confusion that they have added to sentencing. And part of that reconsideration must be to ensure that serious offenders who pose a threat to the public serve a greater proportion of the prison sentences handed down in court.

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