Jail terms to be clarified in open court

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Judges will be required to spell out exactly how long convicted criminals are to spend in prison, it was announced yesterday.

The initiative, by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, is intended to increase understanding among the public of what prison sentences mean.

Under the practice directive issued today, judges will not only spell out the nominal sentence but say in open court exactly how long the prisoner will remain behind bars.

The judge will also make clear "as clearly and accurately as possible" how long after their release the prisoner will be under supervision and for how long they will be liable to be recalled to jail. Prisoners sentenced to four years or more or given a discretionary life sentence - in other words not for murder - will be told when the parole board will first consider release.

At present, a judge hands down the full term of the sentence without referring to the various "discounts" available on the sentence. This has led to a sapping of public confidence in jail sentences when they see criminals walking free years before the end of the stated term. The direction applies to crown court judges but not to magistrates.

Typically, a prisoner serving a three-year sentence would normally be released on licence after 18 months. He or she would then be subject to supervision for a further period and would remain liable to recall to prison until the end of the sentence if a further offence was committed.