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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 October 2006, 15:51 GMT 16:51 UK
Jail terms 'weighty' says judge
Lord Phillips
Lord Phillips has backed community sentences in appropriate cases
A five-year jail term is "a very weighty punishment" and should not be treated "lightly" by the media, says England and Wales' most senior judge.

Lord Phillips criticised media which said someone was able to "walk free" despite five years in jail, in the High Sheriff's Law Lecture in Oxford.

The Lord Chief Justice also said the length of sentences may one day be regarded as shocking as flogging.

He repeated that community sentences could replace some short jail terms.

'Exact vengeance'

Lord Phillips said "some elements of the media" were inclined "to make light of sentences".

"I am inclined to think that to be confined in prison for five years is a very weighty punishment indeed," he said.

I sometimes wonder whether ... people will be as shocked by the sentences we are imposing as we are by some of the punishments of the 18th century
Lord Phillips

"That is not to say that I do not recognise that there are certain crimes which require a sentence of that length or longer to protect the public.

"But I detect on the part of such publications an incitement to the public to exact vengeance from offenders that is not dissimilar from the emotions of those who thronged to witness public executions in the eighteenth century."

His speech outlined the history of punishments in Britain, including execution and practices now considered "utterly barbaric" including flogging, branding and the ducking stool.

He added: "I sometimes wonder whether, in 100 years' time, people will be as shocked by the length of the sentences we are imposing as we are by some of the punishments of the 18th century."

In June, Lord Phillips said incorrect media reporting about sentencing was undermining public confidence in the justice system.

Tuesday's speech also follows news that the 68-year-old judge went undercover, posing as a drink-driving solicitor, to take part in a community sentence alongside real offenders.

He was well-known as a supporter of community sentences in appropriate cases, he said in his speech.

"I have witnessed 'community payback', drug treatment and domestic violence courses," he said.

"They are not a panacea, but I believe they offer a better chance of preventing re-offending than short spells of imprisonment and can leave room in the prisons for effective intervention for those whose crimes require detention."

However, he said community sentences needed to be underpinned by adequate resources.

"And the public must be educated to accept that the demands made by it on the offenders do indeed constitute punishment," he added.

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