Reforms aimed at `career criminals'

`Protecting the Public': The Government's White Paper aims to `let everyone know where they stand' with tougher sentences
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The Independent Online
HEATHER MILLS

Home Affairs Correspondent

Anyone who commits a second violent offence - whether rape or robbery and not necessarily the same type of offence - will automatically go to jail for life under the sweeping new sentencing changes announced yesterday.

The Government's White Paper, Protecting the Public, says: "Too often in the past those who have shown a propensity to commit serious violent or sex offences have served their sentences and been released only to offend again."

It says that "too often, victims have paid the price when the offender has repeated the same offences", but makes it clear that under "mix and match" arrangements anyone with a previous conviction for any violence, such as robbery, rape, attempted murder, wounding with intent and possession of a firearm with intent, will serve life if they are caught committing any further violent offence.

As well as life for repeat rape, sex offenders who commit unlawful sexual intercourse with children under 13 will also be liable to life imprisonment.

Under the changes, dealers peddling hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine are likely to serve more than double the four-year average jail term for a third conviction.

The White Paper says: "We are determined that those who persist in trading in human misery and ruined lives should get the punishment they richly deserve." Anyone over 18 who is convicted on three separate occasions will automatically receive a minimum of seven years in jail. Any previous convictions will count, including those acquired as a juvenile and those normally regarded as "spent" - usually after seven years. All trafficking offences will be covered, including supply, importation, manufacture, conspiracy, incitement or aiding and abetting.

The paper also contains plans to double the 18-month average sentence for the thousands of burglars with at least two previous convictions. It concludes: "Burglary is a pernicious and predatory crime and sadly one of the most common offences. For old people in particular the fear of burglary and the distress it causes can have a devastating effect on their lives."

However, only burglaries committed after the new law comes into force will count towards the mandatory three-year minimum sentence for the criminal on his or her third separate break-in. A fourth or fifth court appearance will lead to a sentence "considerably higher" than the mandatory minimum. "Those who persist regardless will be taken out of circulation for a long time, thus protecting the public from their evil activities. The public is entitled to expect no less."

The paper also plans to block a perceived loophole, under which those sectioned under the Mental Health Act, often considered too ill to plead to an offence, can be released after treatment. It proposes a new hybrid order, allowing mixed sentences, so criminals can both receive hospital treatment and serve a jail term. The proposal is designed to meet the concerns of those working with disordered offenders, believed to suffer some kind of psychopathic disorder, who have been released into the community after serving only a short sentence or after hospital treatment.

The White Paper also plans to abolish the arrangements which allow offenders out of jail on remission or parole after serving only half of their jail sentence. They should in future serve the entire sentence handed down by the courts - with a discount of only up to one fifth, earned by good behaviour. A prisoner serving 12 months or less will be able to earn up to six days a month off by co- operating with the prison regime; those serving longer, three days by co-operation and another three for "positive good behaviour and hard work".

It concludes: "In future all those involved ... will know exactly where they stand."

Convictions for house burglary and average length of sentences, based on a sample of 2,164 offenders taken in 1993 and 1994

First Second Third or Seventh All

conviction conviction subseq. or subseq.

Crown court

Total 447 197 305 43 949

Immediate custody 264 139 230 31 633

Percentage custody 59% 71% 75% 72% 67%

Average sentence 16.2 14.6 18.9 19.4 16.8

length (months)

Magistrates'

courts

Total 705 233 277 31 1,215

Immediate custody 105 63 101 12 269

Percentage custody 15% 27% 36% 39% 22%

Average sentence 3.7 3.9 4.0 4.1 3.9

length (months)

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