Judges’ sentencing powers strengthened

Judges in England and Wales could be given greater discretionary powers in setting sentences for potentially dangerous criminals under proposals unveiled by the government today.

The recommendations in a Home Office consultation paper also suggest giving judges powers to override the automatic release of prisoners, representing a major overhaul of the 2003 Criminal Justice Act which came into force only two years ago under then home secretary David Blunkett.

Under the 2003 act, non-violent offenders were automatically freed halfway through their sentences and then supervised in the community by probation officers.

Today’s proposals follow public outcry over the case of Craig Sweeney who could have been released after five years despite abducting and sexually assaulting a three-year-old girl, his prison licence period for a previous attack had expired just weeks before.

The paedophile’s minimum sentence had been discounted by a third for entering an early guilty plea.

Home secretary John Reid described the sentence as “unduly lenient”, and in July pledged to “rebalance the system in favour of the law-abiding majority and the victim”.

The measures outlined in today’s document also aim to simplify sentencing regulations, making them easier for the public to understand.

Mr Reid said they were “designed to ensure the public are better protected from dangerous offenders and that resources are targeted at those offenders who pose the most significant risks”.

The home secretary called on courts to be “rigorous” when sentencing dangerous and violent criminals. “That is why we need to strengthen judges’ hands so they have greater discretion to impose even tougher sentences on offenders they believe pose a very serious risk,” he added.

Lord Falconer, the constitutional affairs secretary and lord chancellor, said each case should be considered individually, adding: “Sentences in which the public have confidence are vital. Public protection must be at their heart.”

Attorney general Lord Goldsmith said the proposals sought to “strengthen judges’ hands in dealing with dangerous offenders”. They aimed to help the public to “feel confident” that offenders would not be released until it was safe.

However, the Conservatives have said the government must make more room in prisons to accommodate the criminals who were denied early release.

“We would welcome this apparent conversion by the government, abandoning the policy it introduced in its ‘flagship’ criminal justice bill just three years ago,” said shadow home secretary David Davis.

“However, if the government is to keep offenders in prison for longer, it needs to have adequate capacity.”

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg criticised the introduction of “arbitrary and automatic sentence deductions”.

He said it was difficult to take John Reid seriously after his reversal on sentencing measures, adding: “He should now admit to the errors of the original legislation, restore greater discretion to judges and simplify sentences so that they are more honest.

“Sentences should mean what they say.”

The Howard League for Penal Reform wanted to see complete reform of life sentencing rather than “tinkering around with it”, said director Frances Crook.

And crime reduction charity Nacro’s chief executive Paul Cavadino said judges should have more discretion but that most offenders should still be granted automatic release.