Labour targets rapists in law and order plans

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The Independent Online
Rapists would be more likely to be convicted and sex offenders face tough new jail sentences under proposals published by Labour today.

The judiciary would also be given a new role in setting minimum jail terms for all offenders and the public would be given more information about how long criminals have to stay in prison. The package of measures, Honesty, Consistency and Progression in Sentencing, which was drawn up by Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, will be discussed this week at the party's home affairs committee. It is expected to form a central plank in Labour's law-and-order election strategy.

The report deliberately clashes with the White Paper on sentencing from Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, which will be published on Thursday and proposes tough new measures against drug dealers and sex offenders.

Jack Straw said yesterday: "In the last 18 months we have often used the word crisis to describe the current state of the criminal justice system. It is not too strong a word.

"This paper outlines a series of proposals which could provide for greater consistency, progression and honesty in sentencing and offer more protection for the public against very serious offences."

Among his key proposals are measures against rapists and sex offenders. He suggests a new "renewable sentence", under which sex attackers, particularly repeat offenders, could stay in jail for ever.

Under the scheme, once an offender had completed the minimal jail term, the Parole Board would assess every two years whether they were safe to be released into the community. He or she would remain in jail until the board decided that they were reformed. While in prison they would be asked to undertake a treatment programme; failure to do so would count against them when their release date was considered.

Mr Straw also wants to increase convictions for rape. The proportion of people convicted once they are committed to court has fallen from 37 per cent in 1980 to 9 per cent in 1994. He suggests that courts should ban questions about the victim's sexual history not relevant to the case. Second, cases in which men have been accused by several women of similar sex attacks will be heard at the same time, making conviction more likely.

On minimum sentences, Mr Straw proposes to allow the Court of Appeal, after consultation with various groups, to set guidelines for all main categories of offences. The court can already lay down judgments on sentences such as rape, incest and drug trafficking.

The new system contrasts sharply with the Government's proposals which have caused an outcry among the judiciary who believe they are having their powers of discretion removed. The forthcoming White Paper proposes a three-year minimum sentence for persistent burglars, six years for drug-dealers on their second offence, and life for repeat rapists.

Other measures are to give courts more detailed information about previous convictions and to give judges and magistratesmore feedback about the effects of their sentencing decisions.