Computer program to help set jail sentences

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The Independent Online

Britain is to become the first country to use a computer to help decide sentences of criminals in a move which has alarmed lawyers and human rights groups.

Britain is to become the first country to use a computer to help decide sentences of criminals in a move which has alarmed lawyers and human rights groups.

A computer program called Oasys will give danger scores to more than 200,000 people a year, indicating how much risk they pose to the public and how likely they are to reoffend.

The scores will be based on factors that include an individual's family background, address, education and literacy, peer group, past offending, "attitude" and responses to questions by probation officers.

The results will help to determine their sentences and how they are dealt with. The system will also enable the Home Office to establish a national offender database.

Civil liberties groups said defence lawyers would have great difficulty in challenging the computer assessments in court, and lawyers said people could be punished for what they might do rather than their actual crime.

Sir Graham Smith, the Chief Inspector of Probation, who announced the plans at the Home Office yesterday, said the programme - to be introduced across England and Wales next year - would have a "noticeable and dramatic impact" on criminal justice.

"We are leading internationally on this," he said. "This has got to be tried. Our protective authorities have got to be more consistent. We have relied too much on nous and feel. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not."

Sir Graham said judges had backed the idea of Oasys in principle but he admitted that there would be concerns over possible breaches of human rights.

"People won't like it," he said. "I imagine the defence bar might be edgy about it when they come to mitigate or defend such a person."

David Wilson, a professor of criminology at the University of Central England, said: "We are taking away the element of discretion. We will be putting people in jail, not on the basis of what they have done but on the basis of what a computer predicts they might do. That is wrong."

The Law Society's vice-president, David McIntosh, said he was "deeply concerned" that the proposals might "punish people on the basis of what they might do in the future".

Stephen Kramer QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, warned that the Human Rights Act might be breached. "There might be human rights implications if the defence is not provided with the material on which such an assessment is made," he said.

Oasys - which is already undergoing pilot tests - could perform 600,000 assessments in its first year, said Sir Graham.

Richard Garside, of the National Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders, said: "The computer should be an aid and not a substitute for human discretion, or we risk going down the route of justice by postcode."