Howard launches battle of the century

Crime and punishment: Tough sentencing laws will require 12 new prisons at a cost of pounds 2bn
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The Independent Online
An extra 12 prisons and about pounds 3bn will be needed to deal with an estimated 11,000 extra prisoners created by the Home Office's tough new sentencing proposals published yesterday.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, said his Crime (Sentences) Bill, which is aimed at tackling dangerous and persistent offenders, was the "biggest step change in the fight against crime this century".

The Bill was immediately attacked by members of the judiciary and penal reformers who condemned it as a "confidence trick" that would exacerbate the current crisis in the prison system and do little to make people safer.

Mr Howard said that he expected an extra 12 jails, on top of the 135 in England and Wales, would be needed to accommodate an expected 11,000 criminals caught under the changes. The Home Office has not provided figures for the costs but it says that by 2010 it expects the amount to be between pounds 375m and pounds 435m per year. Private companies will build the jails and taxpayers money will be used to repay them via an annual fee over 25 years, which is expected to cost about pounds 3bn. An additional 900 prison staff will be needed. Under Mr Howard's plans, traffickers in hard drugs convicted for a third time would be jailed for at least seven years. Domestic burglars convicted for a third time would face a minimum three-year sentence.

Anyone convicted of a second serious sexual or violent offence would automatically get a life sentence. Automatic remission and parole would be abolished.

The new sentences for persistent burglars are not expected to be applied until the end of the century when sufficient prison accommodation will be available for the expected influx of offenders.

The new Bill appears to give ground to the judge's complaints that mandatory minimum sentences denude their power. Under the proposals judges can ignore the mandatory sentence if they believe there are "exceptional circumstances" in the case, although the bill does not define what these might be.

But Mr Howard warned: "The Attorney General will have the right of appeal if judges interpret `exceptional circumstances' in too liberal or broad a way."

"I don't think judges will intend to use that phrase as a loophole," he added.

But Jack Straw, shadow Home Secretary, said: "It appears that Mr Howard is to allow judicial discretion by the back door."

Despite this apparent concession Lord Donaldson, former Master of the Rolls, warned that automatic life sentences were bound to entail injustices. He said: "This will produce injustice, gross injustice in particular cases."

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers warned: "These measures will play havoc with prison numbers at huge expense to the taxpayer." He said the Bill could land an extra 25,000 people in jail.

Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, denounced the Bill as "a confidence trick".

Mr Shaw said: "Mr Howard's plans have been imported wholesale from the United States. A tripling of the prison population in California has not made safe the streets of Los Angeles. A similar policy will be equally ineffective in Liverpool and London."

Mr Howard replied: "Our aim is to take the most serious, persistent and dangerous offenders out of circulation to prevent them from being able to commit more crime."

Meanwhile the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill was published bringing in mandatory life sentences for repeat sexual or violent offenders in Scotland.

It provides for a minimum sentence of seven years for those convicted of a third offence of trafficking in hard Class A drugs. It also emerged yesterday that several of the proposals publicised by the Government, but absent from the Queen's Speech, may yet become law.

Plans to introduce a new penalty of depriving an offender of their driving licence is expected to be included as an amendment in the committee stage of the Crime Bill, private member's bills are expected to be used to ban sex tourists and clamp down on drugs in nightclubs.

Pledges to introduce legislation to "name and shame" young offenders and ban under-18s from drinking in public appear to have been shelved.

The proposals

The main provisions of the Crime Bill published yesterday are:

SENTENCING

Automatic life sentences for offenders convicted of a second serious violent or sexual offence. Would apply to: attempted murder; rape; threat or conspiracy to murder; manslaughter; wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm; robbery involving the use of firearms; possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life or to commit an indictable offence or to resist arrest; attempted rape; unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 13.

Mandatory minimum sentence of seven years for offenders 18 or over convicted of trafficking in class A drugs for a third time.

Mandatory minimum sentence of three years for domestic burglars 18 or over convicted for a third time.

"Honesty in sentencing" - designed to ensure that the sentence served more closely reflects that handed down in the courtroom. Existing parole and early release arrangements abolished.

MISCELLANEOUS

Alternatives to imprisonment for fine defaulters and persistent petty offenders - community service order or a curfew order, enforceable by electronic tagging.

Parole Board to determine when offenders detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure - the juvenile equivalent of the mandatory life sentence for murder - were safe to be released, removing the Home Secretary's veto.

Measures aimed at preventing inmates launching further challenges over calculations of prison sentences. The latest challenge in the High Court takes place next week by a prisoner claiming his concurrent sentence was wrongly calculated. If successful the move could result in up to 1,000 criminals being released early from jail.

MENTALLY DISORDERED OFFENDERS

Courts to have power to pass a prison sentence and attach a direction of immediate admission to hospital for psychiatric treatment. Offender can be returned to prison for remainder of sentence at the end of treatment.

SUPERVISION OF SEX OFFENDERS

All sex offenders given a custodial sentence to be subject after release to a period of extended supervision by the Probation Service.

The period of supervision would be either 50 per cent of sentence or 12 months, whichever is the greater. Courts could extend period up to a maximum of 10 years.

During the supervision period, probation officers to monitor offenders' conduct and assess risk they posed.

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