The key to our protection

Michael Howard details his sentencing proposals; below, David Thomas attacks the White Paper
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The Independent Online
Protecting the public is the first duty of any government. The public rightly expects protection from serious, dangerous or persistent criminals. It is to strengthen that protection that I have brought forward the proposals in yesterday's White Paper. There are four main elements.

First, what I call honesty in sentencing. The public and the criminal should know that the court's sentence means what it says. At present, it does not. Offenders sentenced to less than four years in prison can expect to be released after serving just half their sentence. Those sentenced to four years or more can expect to be released after serving only two- thirds of their sentence, and sometimes earlier on parole. This enrages victims and undermines public confidence in the criminal justice system.

I therefore propose to abolish automatic early release and parole. Prisoners who co-operate would be able to earn up to 20 per cent off their sentence, but the sentence served would more closely mirror the sentence passed. Prisoners would have a greater incentive to behave well in prison.

Second, serious violent and sexual offenders. The maximum sentence for crimes such as rape and attempted murder is life. Life imprisonment is the only sentence which ensures that an offender is not released until it is safe to release him after a risk assessment. But such criminals rarely get life - even if they offend again. In 1994, 217 offenders were convicted of a second or subsequent serious violent or sexual offence. All could have received a life sentence - but only 10 did. And unless they get life, they must be released at the end of their sentence - even if they are still dangerous. That simply cannot be right. I therefore propose that anyone aged 18 or over who is convicted of a serious violent or sexual offence for a second time should automatically get life - unless there are genuinely exceptional circumstances. They would then be released only when they no longer posed a danger to the public.

In these cases the trial judge would set the tariff - the minimum period to be served for retribution and deterrence. Once that tariff had been served, the Parole Board would decide whether or not to release the offender. Ministers would have no part to play.

Third, drug dealers. They are a menace to society. They wreck people's lives. And because addicts often resort to crime to finance their habits they wreck the livelihoods of others. Dealers in hard drugs such as heroin, Ecstasy and cocaine often receive prison sentences. But I do not believe that these prison sentences are actually tough enough for those who persistently commit this very serious crime. In 1994, the average sentence for a third conviction of dealing in hard drugs was just over four years - and these offenders are automatically released after serving only two and a half years.

So I propose that anyone aged 18 or over who is convicted on three separate occasions of dealing in Class A drugs should automatically receive a minimum sentence of seven years in prison - save in genuinely exceptional circumstances.

Finally, burglary. This crime is disruptive and costly. But domestic burglary is particularly distressing for victims, who lose their treasured personal possessions and feel that the sanctity of their home has been violated. I believe persistent domestic burglars deserve long prison sentences. Sometimes they get them - but in many cases they do not. A sample of domestic burglars convicted in the Crown Court in 1993 and 1994 showed that the average prison sentence for a first-time offender was 16.2 months. But after seven or more convictions it was barely higher at 19.4 months - and they actually serve just half of that. Indeed, 28 per cent of offenders with seven or more convictions for domestic burglary in the Crown Court were not sent to prison at all. And in the magistrates' courts that figure was even higher - 61 per cent.

Under my proposals, anyone aged 18 or over convicted on three separate occasions of burglary or aggravated burglary of a dwelling would automatically receive a minimum sentence of three years in prison - again, except where there were genuinely exceptional circumstances.

The White Paper sets these proposals in the context of the Government's comprehensive strategy to tackle crime. Imposing proper punishment, and, in the most serious cases, severe punishment, is an essential part of that strategy. I accept that this is likely to mean an increase in the prison population. But prison works.Research has found that imprisoning a recidivist burglar, for example, may prevent between three and 11 burglaries for every year he spends in prison. Prison also protects the public from dangerous criminals and acts as a deterrent to would-be criminals. Time in prison can be used to rehabilitate offenders.

Last week I announced that recorded crime had fallen for the last three years in succession. That has happened only twice before this century. In 1995 there were 468,000 fewer crimes committed than in 1992 - the largest ever continuous fall in the number of annually recorded crimes.

This is a credit to the hard work and dedication of the police. It shows that their targeting of known criminals and specific crimes makes a real difference to crime levels in local communities. Money for 5,000 additional police officers is being provided to help the police improve detection rates, but to back this up criminals must know that they will face stiff and certain punishment when they come to court. My proposals will achieve this and thereby give the public the protection from crime to which they are entitled.