Clarke to review life sentences for murder

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The Independent Online
KENNETH CLARKE, the Home Secretary, is considering abolishing the mandatory life sentence for murder.

There have long been calls from the Lords, senior judiciary and lawyers for a change in the law which gives judges no discretion regardless of the circumstances or gravity of the crime.

Most recently in a domestic killing case, Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, threw his weight behind reform, saying that a compulsory life term did not allow the court to reflect any sympathy in its sentence. Although at the time, Mr Clarke was said to share that sentiment, he indicated he was not prepared to prioritise a review.

Until now, successive Home Secretaries have been reluctant to look at the issue for fear of public outcry that the Government was going soft on crime - many people still support the death penalty. Ruling out reform last year, Lord Waddington, one of Mr Clarke's predecessors, said: 'All the wrong signals would go out . . . most people do look on the taking of another's life as uniquely horrible.'

But Mr Clarke is apparently keen to be seen as a reforming Home Secretary, and the Independent has learnt he is listening to the debate with 'an open mind' as part of a complete review of the system governing all life sentence prisoners - mandatory as well as those given discretionary life for serious offences like arson and rape.

News of the review came as the Home Secretary disclosed he was lifting much of the secrecy surrounding the release procedures for Britain's 2,000 compulsory lifers. To date, the much-criticised system has led to some prisoners serving 20 or more years - longer than the judge at their trial envisaged - never being told why they have been constantly denied their freedom, and with no right of appeal.

Now they will have access to the dossiers held by the Parole Board, which makes recommendations to the Home Secretary over an inmate's release. They will also be furnished with any reasons for refusal.

So far, Mr Clarke has fallen short of giving them the same rights as inmates serving discretionary life terms. Following a European Court ruling, the release dates of most discretionary lifers are no longer fixed by the Home Secretary but by a tribunal. They are also entitled to know how long the judge at their trial suggested they should serve - known as the judge's tariff and previously kept secret.

Mr Clarke's review may give those serving mandatory life terms the same rights.

Last night, Stephen Shaw, of the Prison Reform Trust, said: 'The Home Secretary's announcement is of great significance and should be welcomed without reservation. The new procedures will introduce much greater openness into the lifer system.' He also urged a speedy review of the mandatory life sentence and release systems.