New public panel to advise judges

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THE PUBLIC is to have a say for the first time in how long criminals should spend behind bars. The new Sentencing Advisory Panel, set up yesterday in a joint initiative between the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Home Office, will guide judges in a range of offences.

Under the panel's terms of reference it must consult organisations including public interest groups such as Victim Support. It will also be free to consider the interests of the public at large.

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said that the panel would not only improve consistency of sentencing but also "help to deliver justice which has the confidence of the public".

A number of cases in recent years have shown that sentences can be out of step with public opinion. Last year guidelines were drawn up to help judges to explain sentencing.

The Home Secretary made clear that the panel would not threaten the independence of the judiciary. However, it does give Jack Straw the right to "direct the panel" to make a proposal to the court.