Doubts over Howard life sentence plans

Click to follow
The automatic life sentences proposed by the Home Secretary Michael Howard for twice-convicted sex and violent offenders will only affect a small proportion of dangerous criminals and will not significantly enhance public safety, researchers believe.

Publication of their findings, in the November issue of the Criminal Law Review, coincided with the Home Secretary's introduction of the Crime (Sentencing) Bill into the House of Commons yesterday.

The study was conducted by Professor Roger Hood, director of Oxford University's Centre for Criminological Research and a fellow of All Souls, and Stephen Shute, senior lecturer in law at Birmingham University.

It is the first research to test the Government's assertion that the new regime will provide greater protection for the public. It does not make encouraging reading for Mr Howard.

The central finding is that nine out of every ten "high risk" prisoners convicted of a violent or sexual offence would not be covered by the proposed automatic indeterminate life sentence. The analysis, the authors say, challenges the validity of two assumptions underlying the White Paper preceding the Bill: first, that the measure would deal with "a substantial proportion of the `dangerous' criminals about whom the Home Secretary has rightly expressed concern, namely those who are still considered to present a substantial risk at the time when they must by law be released from custody; and second, that the abolition of the power of the Parole Board to decide upon the release dates of determinate sentenced long-term prisoners will increase rather than reduce the protection given to the public."

Following personal observation of more than 900 decisions made at Parole Board meetings between 1992 and 1994, Professor Hood and Mr Shute conducted a detailed analysis of a random sample of 324 cases of prisoners convicted of a sexual or violent offence who were receiving their last possible parole review, having failed to be earlier certified as suitable for release on licence. Only one in ten had been convicted twice of the kinds of offences specified in the White Paper.

A further analysis of cases dealt with by the board after new criteria, introduced in October 1992, placed a greater emphasis on risk of re-offending, still found that only 13 per cent of the most dangerous determinate sentence prisoners would qualify for an automatic indeterminate life sentence under the proposed new law.

Mr Shute said yesterday: "The research illustrates the danger in proposing law reform of this kind in the absence of either research or detailed consideration of the issue by a law reform body."