Radical change in treatment of offenders

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The Independent Online
THE Criminal Justice Act will dramatically affect the way certain offenders are dealt with by the courts. Here are examples.

Keith, 44, has 'loads of drug convictions - more than I can remember'. He started taking drugs at the age of 14 and ended 'by doing everything - mostly speed, smack and cocaine'.

Five years ago, he gave up, got a job and thought the police, the courts and punishment were all behind him. But last year 'somebody brought a load of dope round to my house'. Keith was arrested in a police raid, and sentenced to a year in jail - the first time he had been imprisoned.

'My previous offences made it look as though I had to be still doing drugs,' Keith said. Most observers believe that under the new Act magistrates could still consider Keith's criminal record when deciding whether they believed his story. Yet when determining the sentence, they would probably - but by no means certainly - have to ignore his previous convictions. If so, he would not go to prison.

Roy Bilton was given a discretionary life sentence in 1982 for setting his bed on fire. Like others serving life for offences other than murder, he was not entitled to know how many years the judge had recommended his sentence or 'tariff' should be before release.

His freedom date was left to the discretion of the Parole Board and Home Secretary. Like others he was never told why he had been turned down for parole and he was not allowed to be represented at the hearings. Usually release is refused if the board considers the prisoner a danger to the public.

Now under the Act he has learnt that he has served several years longer than his tariff. He will be given reports and reasons for his continued detention and he will be able to formally challenge any future detention.

However, because about 350 prisoners have already served sentences above their tariff - another petty arsonist has served 21 years, more than a convicted murderer - the Home Office estimates it may take about 15 months before they are able to mount challenges to their continued imprisonment. There is also concern that the onus will be placed on prisoners to prove they are not a danger to the public.

There was public outrage at the nine-year sentence imposed at the Old Bailey on a convicted rapist who attacked a woman within three days of being freed from jail. Concern was voiced that the man, 28, who also had a conviction for indecent assault, would - with full remission - be free again after three years.

Under the new Act, the man would certainly serve a longer penalty. Not only would he have to serve at least half of his sentence, but also the judge would also be empowered to impose an additional term to reflect the man's perceived danger to the public.

But while this example is unlikely to attract criticism, there is concern that the assessment of threat to the public is left to the sole opinion of the trial judge. Edward Fitzgerald, a barrister, said that without the introduction of safeguards - such as the need for evidence to support suggestions that the offender is a continuing threat - criminals faced unfair jail terms.