Muggers and bag snatchers convicted of repeat offences could be given an automatic prison sentence under controversial proposals for a new "three strikes and you're out" law, being considered by ministers and police. Juvenile offenders would serve six months for their third crime and adult criminals would get longer. The Home Office the scheme is being examined the scheme, but questioned short jail terms for juveniles.
Figures from the Metropol-itan Police yesterday showed a huge rise in street offences. In eight months, bag snatches and street robberies have risen nearly 40 per cent in London, from 32,496 in April to November in 2000 to 45,255 in the same period this year. Scotland Yard believes a hard core of repeat offenders commit most street crimes, with impunity. An estimated 20 to 30 are operating in each of the Met's 32 divisions.
Police chiefs tell ministers the criminal justice system is failing them and most street robbers end up with community sentences. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Tim Goodwin said: "There are young people out there and adults who feel untouchable."
There were cases, he said, of juveniles being released on bail for up to 11 different offences involving bag snatches and muggings. He said a 26 per cent increase in the number of people being charged for street crimes – up from 2,700 in from April to November last year to 3,560 in the same period this year – had made no impact on the level of offending.
"We are seeking to have a system of three strikes and you are out which would relate to street robbers," he added. "We need a tough criminal justice policy." He said a new generation of street robbers were becoming involved in a life of crime and the offences were becoming increasingly violent. A third of the street crimes are theft of mobile telephones.
Mr Goodwin said part of the problem was limited secure accommodation for young offenders, which meant many repeat criminals were allowed out on bail to commit further robberies. The legislation for automatic minimum three-year jail term for anyone convicted of a third offence of robbery has helped greatly reduce the number of house break-ins in London, he added.
David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, is thought to be sympathetic towards the idea of extending the tough three strikes policy, but there are problems with jailing juveniles for short periods, seen by many experts as counter-productive.
A Home Office spokeswoman said: "We are concerned about the increase in street robbery especially in city centre areas and we are looking at it as a matter of urgency. We have been working closely with the Metropolitan Police and the other four forces where the problem is most acute.
"Bearing in mind the age of many of the offenders who are involved in street robbery, we are concerned they should be dealt with quickly and given an appropriate sentence by the courts."
The Crime Sentences Act of 1997 introduced a minimum of three years for a third domestic burglary for offenders over 18. The same Act also introduced a minimum sentence of seven years for a third Class A drug-trafficking offence, and automatic life sentence for anyone convicted of a second serious offence involving violence.
The introduction of a new law that would jail large numbers of young people aged 15 to 18 is bound to be resisted by penal reform groups who say that locking up youngsters is more likely to result in them leading a life of crime. The volume would also put an enormous strain on the prison system, which already holds record numbers of inmates.