Lord Woolf is not the one who is 'out of touch'

Yesterday, to predictable howls of outrage, the Sentencing Guidelines Council, chaired by The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, issued advice to judges stating that murderers should be able to plead guilty in return for the guarantee of an earlier parole hearing. The shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, has claimed that this will remove a vital deterrent to murder and undermine the principle, introduced in last year's Criminal Justice Act, that "life means life". Others have accused the Lord Chief Justice of riding roughshod over the concerns of the relatives of victims.

But the complaints against Lord Woolf are unfounded. Murderers will be released early only if a parole board is satisfied that they are no longer a danger. There is no question of killers being let out if they are clearly still a threat to the public. And the rationale for the new guidelines is largely based on concern for, rather than indifference to, the feelings of victims' families. At the moment few people charged with murder plead guilty. If they could be persuaded to do so, not only would a good deal of time and expense be spared, it would also mean that the families of victims would not have to endure the trauma of sitting through a lengthy trial.

The Council's guidelines will be seen as a response to David Blunkett's introduction of a minimum 15-year sentence for murder that is due to take effect next year. This measure, designed to appeal to the prejudices of the right-wing press, would have had little practical effect apart from impeding the ability of judges to use their common sense in sentencing. These new guidelines will strengthen the ability of judges to use their discretion in murder cases.

In the past Lord Woolf has, sensibly, stressed the need to reduce our record prison population through the use of non-custodial sentencing and a greater emphasis on rehabilitation. Yesterday's guidelines reflect that ethos by also allowing judges to show leniency for those charged with lesser crimes if they plead guilty. Far from being "out of touch", Lord Woolf has demonstrated a serious engagement with the deficiencies of our criminal justice system. The Home Secretary should learn from him.

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