Law and Order: Can Labour rid the streets of our fear of crime?

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The Independent Online
The Home Secretary published his flagship Bill to tackle crime and disorder. Anti-social behaviour, sex offenders and youth crime are among his targets. Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent, assesses the proposals.

Jack Straw said yesterday that the yardstick to judge the Crime and Disorder Bill is whether it makes people feel "safer" in their communities.

Introducing a range of measures aimed at tackling the "anti-social" behaviour that leads to crime, Mr Straw said he wanted to shift the balance away from those elements undermining communities, such as youth gangs and problem neighbours.

"It is about giving power back to law-abiding people in society," he said.

The Bill's emphasis on controlling anti-social behaviour reinforces the Government's commitment to "zero-tolerance" policing, despite doubts raised this week in Cleveland, where the approach has been adopted.

A senior officer and main architect of the policy was suspended amid allegations of misconduct.

A key measure introduces extended periods of supervision for sexual and violent offenders on their release from prison. Judges who feel that a convicted sex or violent offender may not be adequately dealt with through being let out on licence during their sentence can impose an "extension" sentence of close supervision on the offender. For sexual offences the period will be for up to 10 years, and violence five years. Police will also be able to apply to magistrates for orders against known sex offenders they feel are a threat to the public. The Bill, which should come into force next autumn, also creates a new series of "racially aggravated" offences, including assaults, harassment and public order offences. The offences will attract higher sentences .

Officials believe this will provide incentive for the police and prosecutors to unearth any racial motive behind crimes.

Many parts of the Bill have been heavily trailed, including parenting orders to provide counselling sessions, enforceable orders against anti- social behaviour - backed by five-year jail sentences - child curfews, final warnings and detention and training orders for young offenders.

An unusual proposal is to allow remand hearings and other pre-trial hearings - where a defendant is in custody but not required by the court to attend the hearing - to be conducted through live television links between courts and prisons.

Many in the crime prevention business believe the most important provision is the new duty - included despite initial police opposition - on forces and local authorities to draw up crime reduction strategies in their areas.

Although the overall package will cost an estimated pounds 120m a year to implement, ministers believe that it can save pounds 180m from the prison bill through the electronic tagging and early release of 6,000 prisoners annually. Some experts think the final savings could be even higher, with an overall annual reduction in prison numbers potentially up to 7,000.

The measures will need 600 new probation officers to supervise sex offenders and violent criminals in the community following their release from prison. Alongside the Bill, the Court of Appeal will issue new guidelines on sentencing to ensure greater consistency in the way offenders are dealt with.

Many of the proposed schemes will be piloted before they apply nationally and the full impact of the measures should kick in by April 1999 - given them two years to have an impact before the next general election.

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