53 ‘lifers’ released after six years

Fifty-three people given life sentences since 2000 have been freed from jail, the Home Office has admitted.

The Conservatives described the figures, which mean the offenders served no more than six years of their sentences before being released on licence, as “appalling”.

The news comes after a row broke out yesterday between the attorney general and the home secretary over the sentence given to a convicted paedophile who sexually assaulted a three-year-old girl just weeks after finishing his period of licence.

John Reid said the tariff given, which was life but which means he could be released in five years, was “unduly lenient” – but Lord Goldsmith said that while he would be looking at the case, he would not succumb to “public or political pressure”.

The latest figures were revealed in a Commons written answer, in which Home Office minister Jerry Sutcliffe insisted the 53 offenders had served the time “necessary for the purpose of retribution and deterrence” and their risk to the public was now “acceptable”.

A Home Office spokesman explained afterwards that all the decisions had been taken by the parole board under the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000.

This says that in the absence of exceptional circumstances, courts must pass a life sentence on any adults convicted of a second serious or violent sexual offence. However, the judge can set a tariff less than this, which is what happened.

“The most common offence represented among the 53 is grevious bodily harm,” the spokesman said, adding: “The majority of these prisoners were set a relevant tariff of five years or less by the trial judge in open court.”

He added: “As the home secretary has said, the government is committed to rebalancing the whole criminal justice system in favour of victims. Sentences which reflect the seriousness of crimes committed by offenders play a key part in this.”

Former home secretary David Blunkett today weighed into the affair, saying it was “hardly surprising the public think our justice system can sometimes look like a sick joke”.

Writing in his column in The Sun – which has launched a campaign against “soft judges” – Mr Blunkett said: “I despair when a few of our judges deal with criminals as though they were simply naughty boys.”

Yesterday Tony Blair’s official spokesman said the prime minister backed Mr Reid’s right to intervene in sentencing cases when there was “public concern that there was a disconnect between the public’s view of the offences and the sentences that were being handed out to deal with that offence”.

The spokesman denied this was political interference, saying the attorney general’s review of the case was part of “due legal process” in which Mr Reid had no role.