Justice Act in dock over freed convict

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The Independent Online
A DANGEROUS criminal who committed two serious offences while on the run from jail is at liberty this weekend despite having received two jail sentences in the past fortnight.

The judge in one of the hearings blamed the controversial 1991 Criminal Justice Act for the fact that he will not serve time. A fierce row has developed over parts of the Act - severely criticised by the Lord Chief Justice - which introduced limits on when previous convictions can be taken into account, and means-tested fines, so that people may pay large amounts for petty offences.

The man, who cannot be named because he is now on bail on a theft charge, was released from prison last Thursday. In 1984 he was jailed for 11 years for a drugs offence, absconded while on home leave, and was on the run for two years. In the past two weeks he has received a 33-month sentence at the Old Bailey for possessing a shotgun and 16 months at Middlesex Crown Court for malicious wounding. While he has been freed, his co-defendant in the firearms case must serve a 33-month sentence.

Judge Richard Lowry, who presided over the Old Bailey case, said he was powerless to make the fugitive serve the sentence because a Home Office circular, thought to detail the terms of the Act, forbade him from doing so. The judge told defence counsel: 'The result is that your client, who was unlawfully at large at the time of the offence, continues to be subject to the circular. Whatever sentence I pass is neutered. Quite what is the intention of the Secretary of State is open to speculation.'

Exactly why the man has avoided extra time in prison is a mystery. Judges refuse to comment on individual cases, but both Judge Lowry and Judge Eric Crowther at Middlesex passed concurrent sentences which would have run alongside the 1984 conviction and allowed him to be freed when that term was served.

The Act lays down a 'latest date of release' (LDR) - which sets the longest time a prisoner can serve with no remission or parole - and an 'earliest date of release' (EDR), which sets the earliest time that a prisoner can be eligible for parole and remission. One of the aims of the Act was to reduce the number of people in prison.

The man's solicitor said: 'Neither of the new sentences imposed by the judges would have extended his jail term beyond his LDR, which was in 1995. Therefore the EDR still had to apply. He lost some remission because he absconded but this enabled him to be freed on 8 April.'

A Home Office spokesman strenuously denied that the Act was to blame for the problem. 'Nothing in the Act prevents the judge from passing a consecutive sentence if he thinks it is appropriate. The judge has a choice: either increase the length of his original sentence by making it consecutive or add nothing to it by making it concurrent.'