Juvenile offenders face tougher court sentences: Criminal Justice Bill outlines measures to crack down on crime

A THREE-pronged increase in the severity of sentences for juvenile offenders and abolition of the right to silence are the most significant sections of the 117-clause Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, which was published yesterday.

Courts will be able to impose sentences of up to 14 years on juveniles aged 10 to 13 convicted of serious offences, make secure training orders of up to two years for persistent offenders and have the option of two-year sentences for those aged 15 to 17 who are sent to young offender institutions.

The lowering of the serious offending tariff from 13 to 10 is a new measure. Currently, juveniles in that group cannot be sent to custody for serious offences such as rape or robbery. Instead a judge has to impose a local authority care order. The authority then decides how the juvenile is treated.

The measures, together with several aimed at reducing offending while on bail, are seen by the Government as a response to widespread concern over juvenile offending. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, said: 'Many communities suffer terribly from the activities of a handful of young hooligans who offend time and time again. They are a menace to their communities.'

But critics said last night that they would do nothing to prevent crime. Tony Blair, Labour's home affairs spokesman, said the Govermnent should improve crime prevention and introduce programmes to divert young people from crime. 'These measures will not make the streets safer,' he said, adding that Labour would examine the legislation constructively.

Prison reformers estimated the measures would double the number of young people in custody. Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: 'The Bill is a collection of tried and failed counterproductive ideas. All the available evidence shows that punitive custody is a costly failure.'

The Bill, which was announced in the Queen's Speech also contains other measures signalled by the Government over the past year.

Abolishing the right to silence has been greeted with dismay by most lawyers and civil liberties groups, who say that it is a reversal of the fundamental principles of justice and would lead to more miscarriages. Although a majority of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice rejected abolition, Mr Howard said he had found the minority arguments 'absolutely compelling'. The right to silence had become a 'charter for criminals'.

New proposals to put DNA testing and create a databank of DNA profiles also concerns civil liberties groups, but the Government is confident the argument that the testing is simply a 21st-century fingerprint will win converts.

The new measures give police improved powers to take non-intimate samples from suspects and reclassify saliva and mouth swabs as non-intimate; it will also be made easier to obtain hair root samples. New powers aimed at street-level drugs dealers will allow police to open and search the mouths of suspects.

On terrorism, the Bill aims to clarify the law to enable police to conduct road blocks to stop and search terrorist vehicles. Two new offences have also been created: possession of articles intended for terrorist purposes and collecting information for terrorist purposes.

Police are given new public order powers to deal with New Age travellers and ravers. The Public Order Act is amended to allow police to reduce the number of permitted vehicles from 12 to six and give them powers to remove vehicles from private land. They will also be able to direct people to leave land if 10 or more have gathered and they suspect a rave is planned and be able to seize vehicles and amplification equipment.

Also included in the Bill are measures to clarify the trade union status of the Prison Officers' Association following recent court rulings and increase the involvement of the private sector in running prisons and prisoner escorts.

It also revives the use of electronic tagging, despite the failures of earlier experiments.

MAIN POINTS OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE & PUBLIC ORDER BILL

New sentences of up to 14 years for juveniles aged 10 to 13 years convicted of serious offences;

New secure training orders of six months to two years for persistent offenders aged 12 to 14;

Maximum sentences for 15- to 17-year-olds doubled to two years;

Ending of the right to silence;

Measures to tackle offending on bail;

New powers for DNA testing;

New police powers to mount roadblocks against terrorists; two new terrorism offences;

New measures to deal with mass trespass and raves;

Extended powers to deal with obscenity and pornography;

Provision for pilot schemes for electronic tagging of offenders.

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