Tough line on crime to unify Tories: Sweeping package of criminal law reforms

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The Independent Online
A SWEEPING reversal of earlier government policy and the introduction of a radical package of criminal justice reforms will be announced at next week's Conservative Party conference.

The proposals, which include ending the right to silence, imposing tougher penalties on all categories of offender and locking away more child offenders are seen by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and John Major as both a means of re-uniting the party and reclaiming the law and order high ground - lost during 14 years of spiralling crime.

Mr Howard will outline a new Criminal Justice Bill which will form the centrepiece of government policy for the autumn parliamentary session. In response to the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, Mr Howard will announce the abolition of the right to silence; formalising plea bargaining; advance dislosure of defence evidence; and ending the automatic right to jury trial for a new category of offences.

Defence lawyers and probation officers say these are cost cutting measures which dangerously swing the balance of the criminal justice system away from the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty'.

The abolition of the right to silence also goes against the recommendations of the Royal Commission, which suggested only that defendants should be obliged to comment at the completion of the entire prosecution case.

His only concession to lawyers and the judiciary - concerned about preventing the series of miscarriages of justice which led to the setting up of a commission in the first place - is establishing a new tribunal to investigate allegations of injustice, and abolishing the Home Secretary's executive role in the process.

Against a background of high- profile juvenile crime, Mr Howard is to extend the courts' powers to lock up children. At the moment there are strict limitations governing the detention of 14- to 17-year- olds convicted of serious offences such as murder, rape and arson. Mr Howard wants to widen the scope of serious offence to take into account the persistent burglar or dangerous joyrider. Children as young as 12 will also be subject to community service orders and parents could also find themselves similarly penalised for their children's behaviour.

Mr Howard will say that bail will no longer be an expectation for those facing criminal charges; defendants will have to prove they can be trusted if they remain free, with tougher penalties for offending on bail.

He is expected to introduce national standards governing the use of cautions and punishment in the community for petty offenders will also be strengthened by the use of curfews - and, in one or two pilot areas, electronic tagging.

The measures will almost certainly mean a return to severe prison overcrowding with three in a cell - the conditions that led to the Strangeways riots. But Mr Howard is less concerned about prison conditions than in being seen to be soft on crime. He is preparing to build new cells within existing prison walls as well as involving the private sector in financing and building new jails.

Yesterday, Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation officers, described the proposals as 'the most devastating attack on reform for 50 years. Commonsense and sound practice have been sacrificed for political expediency.'