Top police chief joins attack on jail plans

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

A senior police officer broke ranks yesterday and joined the judiciary's attack on the Home Secretary's plans to incarcerate thousands more men and women under sweeping sentencing reforms.

The Chief Constable of Humberside, Tony Leonard's surprise criticisms of Michael Howard's sweeping sentencing reforms, came as the new head of the Prison Service said that 25 new jails would be needed over the next 10 years - at an estimated cost of more than pounds 6bn - to cope with the explosion in the prison population.

Mr Leonard forced Mr Howard on to the defensive, when the Home Secretary was on a visit to Grimsby. Mr Leonard - who was showing off his force's new high-speed pursuit car - called into question the whole basis of Mr Howard's sweeping sentencing reforms, outlined in Wednesday's White Paper.

Mr Leonard said the hundreds of millions of pounds the Government was planning to pour into a major prison-building programme would be better spent on crime prevention and questioned the minimum sentences for violent and sex offenders, and repeat burglars and drug dealers.

He said: "It's going to cost an awful lot of money in terms of building new prisons. I'd rather see that money ploughed into policing and preventing crime."

And he added: "I agree with the Lord Chief Justice in that I don't think Parliament should set minimum sentences. The law should set maximum sentences and should trust the judiciary to implement sensible arrangements as to the length of the sentence."

It was a major embarrassment for Mr Howard. For - until yesterday - the police were the only professionals within the criminal justice system to have voiced support for the American-style mandatory sentences which have angered the judiciary, probation officers, the Bar and penal reform groups. Although some senior officers are known to share Mr Leonard's views, none have spoken out so publicly.

But Mr Howard sought to brush off the criticisms, insisting most police supported his plans and that the Government was already giving them extra resources.

"The money will be found. We are already giving more money to the police - we will have 5,000 more police officers in the next five years," he said.

"A maximum sentence is not a sufficient deterrent. These views [Mr Leonard's] are not the views of the police generally and I am very pleased that my proposals are being supported by the people at the sharp end of the law."

Meanwhile, during a visit to Gartree Prison in Leicestershire, Richard Tilt, who has taken over the running of the Prison Service following the sacking of Derek Lewis, said the moves would lead to a massive prison building programme.

"We need to build another 10 prisons to cope with the already expected rise in the prison population. We're looking at a programme that will include a total of 25 prisons over the next ten to 12 years," he said.

But Paul Cavadino, chair of the Penal Affairs Consortium, a group of organisations concerned with prisoners' welfare, said the number of jails needed could be even greater than the 25 envisaged by Mr Tilt.

The White Paper underestimated the new total of prisoners, firstly by exaggerating the deterrent effect of tougher sentences and secondly by assuming that judges would hand down shorter sentences under the new system.

He warned that the number of prisoners could rise by 30,000 rather than the 10,000 estimated by the White Paper.