Sentencing probe ‘will not be politically influenced’

The attorney general last night signalled he would not bow to political pressure to increase the sentence on a man who sexually assaulted a three-year-old girl.

A spokesman confirmed Lord Goldsmith is looking at the case of Craig Sweeney, a convicted paedophile jailed yesterday for life but who could be out in five years, to see if it should be referred to the court of appeal as too lenient.

But he said the attorney general would not be swayed by “political or public pressure”, in what will be seen as a warning to home secretary John Reid, who said yesterday he believed the sentence was “unduly lenient”.

“This is a statutory power which the attorney exercises in the public interest in only the most serious offences and after careful legal consideration,” the spokesman said.

He insisted he would only refer the case to the court of appeal if “he believes that it falls significantly below what any judge could reasonably have passed”, and stressed his actions so far did not imply any criticism of the sentencing judge.

“The attorney will make a decision purely on the merits of the case and not in response to political or public pressure,” he added.

His comments come amid increasing public concern about the leniency of some sentences, which has led The Sun to start a campaign against “soft judges”.

Under official guidelines, all offenders who plead guilty can have their sentence cut by one third. However, the attorney general can challenge “unduly lenient” sentences and has done so in 339 cases in the past three years.

Sweeney’s attack took place just weeks after coming out of his parole period for an earlier child sex offence. He abducted the three-year-old from her home in Cardiff in January, and drove her to his house where he sexually assaulted her.

After driving to the Swindon area, he subjected her to another attack, before he was arrested by Wiltshire police after crashing his car between Marlborough and Hungerford.

Judge Williams said Sweeney was a “devious man” and although he said he could be eligible for early release, said it was “unlikely” that this would happen.

However, the victim’s family condemned the sentence as “an insult” and warned there were “grave failings in the criminal justice system that needed to be urgently addressed”.

In a statement released through their lawyer, they said: “The victim’s family is now calling for the government to urgently review sentencing guidelines for crimes of this type and to significantly increase the prison sentences given to paedophiles.”

Speaking afterwards, a Home Office spokesman said that while a life sentence, as given to Sweeney, was the “ultimate sanction” a court could make, the home secretary was concerned that it “does not reflect the seriousness of this crime”.

“[He] is writing to the attorney general to ask him to consider referring the sentence to the court of appeal as unduly lenient,” the spokesman said.