Taylor renews attack against sentence plans

Criminal justice: Giving victims greater voice in punishment rejected by judge in continuing war of words with Home Secretary
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Home Affairs Correspondent

The country's most senior judge yesterday launched a fresh attack on the Home Secretary's handling of the criminal justice system when he warned against further unwelcome importations from the American legal system.

Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, cautioned against giving victims too loud a voice in the punishments and sentences handed out by the courts to their attackers. But he outlined his own proposals for informing courts of the effects on crime on the victims.

Re-opening the war of words between the judiciary and the Government over the latest plans to hand down tough new minimum sentences, Lord Taylor said the current fixation with sentencing as the key to the justice system was "a highly fashionable error". And he said that to talk of justice for victims in terms of sentencing was not only to look at the system "through the wrong end of the telescope", but also to ignore a major section of it.

But he accepted, in a speech to a Victim Support conference in Newcastle upon Tyne, that the views of victims should play a part in the courts process. In another swipe at Michael Howard's sentencing plans, he said he hoped that in the "current stampede to build new prisons" the requirements of Victim Support should not be overlooked.

He suggested that police investigating crimes should make notes of the impact of the crime on the victim and this could be passed on to the court. But he warned that it should not be used as a tool to impose unjustly harsh sentences and he rejected outright introducing the American system of victims making statements to the court.

He added later: "The notion that if you sentence longer and longer and longer it's going to be better and better for the public is quite wrong.

"The public has an interest in seeing that people are rehabilitated and, of course, they should be punished appropriately. But the idea that because a particular victim has suffered very severe injuries, let's say, there must be absolutely comparable injury or detention on the perpetrator is, I think, inappropriate."

Yesterday's criticism of government penal policy was, by Lord Taylor's recent standards, a muted affair. Last month he declared all-out war - accusing the Government of introducing a succession of ill-thought out, hasty and contradictory criminal justice legislation and warning of the dangers of under mining public confidence.

Earlier this week, Judge Stephen Tumim, former chief inspector of prisons, added his voice to the mounting opposition from nearly all practitioners within the criminal justice system. Even some senior police officers have broken ranks to say more should be invested in prevention rather than prison for criminals who are caught and convicted.

Lord Taylor won immediate support yesterday from penal reformers. Paul Cavadino, of the Penal Affairs Consortium, warned that giving the victim too great a say could undermine justice. "It would be wrong for a court to pass a heavier sentence on the ground that the victim favoured severe punish ment. Some victims are understandably vengeful, while others are extremely forgiving."