Sentencing U-turns baffle courts

MINISTERS have ignored warnings from the judiciary that successive U-turns in government crime policy have left the courts 'without the faintest idea' when they were meant to send offenders to jail.

High Court judges and representatives from the Magistrates' Association and National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) told senior Home Office civil servants at a private meeting in June that the latest in a series of changes to the law should be postponed until 1994 to give sentencers time to understand how to operate the system.

However, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, ignored their warnings of impending confusion and pushed ahead with legislation which will allow the courts to take the previous convictions of minor offenders into account.

The new measure comes into operation on 16 August. It alters the 1992 Criminal Justice Act which did not allow courts to take previous convictions of most minor offenders into account.

The Act was based on the principle that the punishment should fit the crime. Judges should not punish defendants twice by giving higher sentences to offenders with criminal convictions.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo, said that total confusion was imminent because the Government was not saying to court staff they could simply go back to their old ways in August.

'The courts are now being told that they can punish people for past offences by looking at previous offences, as they could before October 1992,' he said.

'But they are also being told something new: that the sentences they give should not be 'disproportionate' to the crime before the courts. No one has the faintest idea what that means.'

Probation officers yesterday seized on Judge Robin Laurie's remarks at Southwark Crown Court last Friday to support their argument. The judge said the law gave him no option but to free Anthony Benton, 42, who has a 21-year history of sex convictions. He should have gone to prison for six to eight years for his latest attack, on a girl of nine, the judge said. 'Unfortunately for the public, the current sentencing practices would only permit me to give you 18 months in prison. You have already served that time.'

Mr Howard said yesterday that the judge had got it wrong. Even under the 1992 Act, judges could pass punitive sentences for violent and sexual offences and were able to take patterns of previous offences into account.