Lifer numbers to double by 2007

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THE NUMBER of criminals serving life sentences is expected to almost double to about 6,000 in the next seven years, an official report has found.

A significant number of life-sentence inmates should have been released years ago, but mistakes in processing their cases have led to long delays, the study suggests. One prisoner was found to have served 16 years longer than the original tariff set by the court. The rapid rise in the number of lifers is also attributed to the increase in discretionary life offences.

The findings, published today in a report called Lifers, come in a joint study by Her Majesty's inspectorates of prisons and probation. In the 10 years to 1997, the number of lifers in jails in England and Wales rose from 2,339 to 3,721.

A life term is the mandatory penalty for murder. A discretionary life sentence can be passed for other grave offences. Automatic life terms have also been introduced for people convicted of a second serious crime.

The Home Office said yesterday that it was setting up a committee to oversee improvements to the system.