Letter: Prison terms fairer with the old system

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The Independent Online
Sir: As you pointed out in your leading article ("No more freedom for the Prison Service", 26 August) the latest difficulty faced by the Prison Service yet again illustrates the long-running and fundamental problem about who is ultimately accountable to Parliament and the public for the management of prisons.

It is wise to postpone blaming the Home Secretary for the immediate problem of whether prisoners have been released too early or too late. There is a case for arguing that the long-established method for calculating release dates was correct.

Section 67 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967 speaks of the "sentence of imprisonment" being reduced by the time spent on remand. It is not clear whether this means the total sentence for all the offences or each individual sentence. However, the system for calculating the length of any sentence to be served was amended by the Criminal Justice Act 1991 and Section 51 of that Act provides that for the purposes of that Act "consecutive terms ... shall be treated as a single term".

The contrary interpretation creates a nonsense and possibly an injustice. Suppose Bill Sykes and Raffles together commit two burglaries and (admittedly less likely) are arrested. Sykes, because of his past record, is remanded in custody while Raffles is granted bail. After six months, both appear at the Old Bailey where they are sentenced to two years for each offence, the sentences to run consecutively.

If the Prison Service is correct in its present approach, Sykes will have two periods of 18 months left to serve, making a total period in custody (assuming he does not receive remission) of three and a half years. Raffles, on the other hand, will spend four years in custody. The worse the record, the shorter the period inside.

The Home Office hopes that prisoners will institute legal proceedings to enable the courts to give an authoritative decision. The opportunity could however be taken to seek a judicial review. If both the Prison Service and the Home Secretary were made defendants the High Court could perform a great public service by resolving the fundamental issue: which of the two is responsible?

JOHN MITCHELL

Family Law Chambers,

Temple,

London EC4

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