Deborah Orr: An indictment of our criminal justice system

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The Independent Online

Eight years. More than 100 women claim to have been sexually assaulted by John Worboys, so this does not sound like much of a prison sentence. It most certainly does not impress Jill Saward, who has been a rape law campaigner since her own assailant was given a derisory sentence for attacking her in 1986. In a statement released to the press yesterday, Saward spoke for many when she said: "The minimum term of eight years is less than eight months per rape. The sentence is a disaster and adds to the catalogue of errors surrounding the investigation into his crimes."

Saward is certainly right in focusing on the catalogue of errors in the police investigation. But she is wrong to suggest that Worboys has been sentenced for 12 rapes. He has been convicted for his assaults on 12 women, one of them a rape. No other crime against him is proven, although the police "hope" to clear up many other cases by interviewing him while he is in prison. Which means that Worboys is trapped. If he co-operates with the police by confessing, this will be considered a positive outcome of the compulsory rehabilitation that is part of his sentence, which actually is to indefinite incarceration. Yet at the same time he will reveal himself as a much more dangerous criminal than the already alarming facts on his charge sheet suggest. This will make the eight-year tariff marking his first opportunity to apply for parole a meaningless formality.

Worboys has been given an indeterminate sentence, under legislation introduced by the Government in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The sentence, which can be applied in response to 153 specific violent and sexual crimes, is considered by many to be controversial and draconian, as it was designed to be a life sentence by other means.

Indeterminate sentencing has been in operation since April 2005, and has proved tremendously popular with judges. Around 8,000 prisoners are presently serving indeterminate sentences, and officials estimate that this number will have swollen to 25,000 by 2012. Its critics say that it is already a major contributor to prison overcrowding, and it has already been subject to a legal challenge because many of those who are given such sentences find that there is no funding to provide them with the programmes of rehabilitation that they need to complete in order to obtain parole.

Few will grieve that Worboys has been caught in the Kafkaesque embrace of this legislation. Yet its very existence is testament not to the muscularity but the weakness of our criminal justice system. Headlines shouting "eight years" do not adequately emphasise the seriousness of the crime of rape. Worboys's sentence, however, does. It is important that people understand that a conviction for rape means that you may go to prison for ever, or at least until there is reasonable certainty that you are no longer a threat to the public. But indeterminate sentencing is such an affront to human rights that the Government prefers it to be kept nice and quiet.