Home Affairs Correspondent.
Tough US-style automatic jail terms were unveiled yesterday as Michael Howard announced the most radical changes to sentencing policy this century.
In a populist package, he promised mandatory life sentences for repeat violent and sex offenders, minimum tough sentences for repeat burglars and drug dealers - and an end to remission and parole.
The moves will lead to a massive prison building programme, estimated at pounds 3billion over the next 25 years. On Mr Howard's lowest estimates it will involve 12 new jails, on top of five already in the pipeline, to hold an extra 10,000. Probation officers and penal reform groups, believe the prison population will leap from its present 54,000 by 30,000, needing nearly 40 new jails.
The proposals contained in a white paper Protecting the Public, also set the government on collision course with all the criminal justice system - with the exception of the police.
Mr Howard's most powerful opponent, Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, who has had led the judiciary's attack on the plans - which they say removes their ability to sentence according to the unique circumstances of a crime - remained silent.
He has already warned that mandatory minimum sentences will not reduce crime, will remove any incentive for a defendant to plead guilty - thus forcing victims to go through the ordeal of a trial - and could, in extreme cases, force a rapist to kill his victim and only witness, because he will get a life sentence either way.
Labour's frontbench, anxious not to give the government any grounds to suggest they are "soft on crime and criminals" in the run=up to an election will support the main proposals.
In the Commons, Mr Howard said: "We have taken action to ensure that the balance in our criminal justice system favours the law abiding public not the criminal. These proposals are tough. And they should be. They are needed to protect the public and to build a safer Britain."
The key measures are:
Automatic life sentences for second time serious violent or sexual offenders.
Minimum seven-year jail sentences for traffickers in category A hard drugs convicted for a third time.
Three year minimum prison terms for three-time burglary offenders.
Scrapping automatic early release through good behaviour.
Professor Andrew Rutherford, chairman of the Howard League said: "This model of mass incarceration has brought no discernible end to the crime problem in the US".
Penal reforms, page 4
Michael Howard, page 21