The Big Question: Are prison sentences too lenient, and does the system need changing?

Why are we asking this now?

In the past few days, the issue of sentencing has come to the fore in three high-profile cases, culminating in an announcement yesterday by the Attorney General, Baroness Scotland, that the sentences handed down to Baby P's killers were not unduly lenient and therefore she would not be referring the case to Court of Appeal.

The child's mother and her lodger, Jason Owen, were given indefinite terms while her boyfriend was given a life sentence. But there was anger over the minimum tariffs – the time to be served before they can be considered for release – of five years for the mother, 10 years for her boyfriend, and three years for Owen.

Then there were the parents of Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez, the French students murdered by drug addicts Dano Sonnex and Nigel Farmer in south London, who complained about the sentences given to their sons' killers. Both were given life, with Sonnex ordered to serve a minimum of 40 years and Farmer 35. Again the Attorney General said she will review the sentences and decide whether they were "unduly lenient". And the parents of 16-year-old stabbing victim Ben Kinsella also complained about the minimum sentences given to their son's killers – 19 years. The Kinsellas, Mr Bonomo and Mr Ferez all said that life should mean life and that the men involved should never be released.

What was the justification for these sentences?

That they were within the sentencing guidelines. The offence the three killers of Baby P were convicted of, causing or allowing the death of a child, does not carry a life sentence. It carries a maximum of 15 years. It is also worth noting that, while the mother and Owen were given minimum tariffs, they were also given indeterminate sentences which means there is every possibility they will spend longer than the minimum term in prison and might never get out. In fact they were the stiffest sentences ever imposed for the offences of which they were convicted and police officers leading the case were pleased with them. The boyfriend was given a life sentence, for the rape of a two-year-old girl as opposed to his role in Baby P's death, and while he will be eligible for parole after 10 years it is extremely unlikely, given the nature of his offences, that he will get it. Again, he might never be released.

In the murder cases outlined above, it is a common reaction for the families of victims in murder cases to complain about perceived leniency, but judges, unless imposing whole life tariffs which are usually reserved for serial killers or those who have committed the most heinous of murders, have to set a minimum tariff.

Do longer sentences have a deterrent effect?

This is a hotly contested issue. Some politicians argue that offending behaviour can only be influenced by stiffer sentences that are well publicised. Criminal reform groups contend that sending people to prison for longer has no direct impact on crime rates.

Because it is difficult to undertake meaningful research into this area this is likely to continue to remain a bone of great contention. The statistics show that overall crime levels have fallen in the last 10 years while the length of prison sentences have increased. But there is no evidence to link the two.

Why do criminals never serve their full sentence?

In fact many do. Charles Bronson, branded Briton's most violent inmate, was jailed for seven years in 1974 and has never been released, although this is because he has committed many further offences while in prison. But generally those sentenced to time in prison will be eligible for parole after half of their sentence has been served. This means they will have the opportunity to explain to a panel of experts, a parole board, why they believe they are rehabilitated and ready for release.

The board will consider things like behaviour while in prison and the threat the individual still poses. Parole has two advantages. The first offers an incentive for prisoners to behave, with the carrot of an early release. The second alleviates the problem of over-crowded prisons. This problem also means that prisoners are, unless sentenced to life, released after two-thirds of their sentence.

Can a prison sentence ever be increased?

Yes. The Attorney General can request that the Court of Appeal reconsider a sentence she believes maybe "unduly lenient". An unduly lenient sentence is one where the prison sentence is not long enough for the seriousness and circumstances of the crime that has been committed. Such sentences must be unduly lenient, not just soft. This is possible only for some types of offence, and must be done within 28 days from the day after sentencing.

Who can complain that a sentence is unduly lenient?

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has processes for considering cases where a sentence may be unduly lenient. Victims, their families, and members of the public may complain to their local CPS Area office, which may refer the sentence to the Attorney General, if they consider the sentence to be unduly lenient. Victims, their families, and members of the public can also complain through a Member of Parliament, or write directly to the Attorney General.

Does life ever mean life?

Yes. A life sentence means that even if a prisoner is released he or she will always be on licence and can be recalled to prison if they commit any other offence, no matter how minor.

There are also sentences known as Whole Life tariffs. These are usually reserved for serious offenders and basically mean that the prisoner should spend his entire life behind bars and never get parole. Only four prisoners ever issued with one of these have been released. One was on compassionate grounds, where the man was terminally ill. The other three were IRA terrorists released as part of the Good Friday Agreement.

Notable prisoners given Whole Life tariffs include Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, Rose and Fred West, Harold Shipman and Roy Whiting. But they could not have been given in the case of Ben Kinsella's killers. Whole life tariffs cannot be handed to murderers under the age of 21.

What is the Government doing about crime sentencing?

Labour established the Sentencing Advisory Panel and the Sentencing Guidelines Council who advise judges on the most appropriate prison terms for particular offences. The Government has also passed dozens of laws imposing new sentences for new crimes.

Yesterday Justice Secretary Jack Straw announced that he will review the starting point from which judges set the minimum prison term for murder using a knife. Mr Straw told Parliament that he thought there was a case to increase the starting point and would now consult with the judiciary and others. He will examine whether the starting point for murder using a knife should be increased from the current 15 years and brought in line with the 30-year starting point for murder involving the use of a firearm. The issue was raised by the family of Ben Kinsella, to whom Mr Straw is writing.

Are judges too soft on criminals?

Yes...

* Life rarely means life, with murderers and rapists often winning release after serving only half their sentence

* If not too soft, then too inconsistent. Some judges are much more lenient than others

* Victims' families should have a greater say in how long a criminal spends in prison

No...

* Judges only impose sentences which parliament has agreed

* If prison sentences are too long there will be no incentive for criminals to plead guilty or change their offending behaviour

* A sentence which is considered too lenient can be referred to the Court of Appeal

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