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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 November 2006, 16:59 GMT
Move to overhaul sentencing rules
Craig Sweeney
The home secretary labelled Sweeney's sentence "too lenient"
Judges in England and Wales could be given greater discretion to decide the sentence tariffs for potentially dangerous criminals.

The Home Office has also suggested ways to make sentencing guidelines easier for the public to understand.

It follows anger over the case of Craig Sweeney, who was told he could be released after five years of a life sentence for kidnap and sexual assault.

A consultation document outlining the overhaul was published on Thursday.

Sentence discount

Under rules introduced two years ago by then Home Secretary David Blunkett, non-violent offenders are automatically freed halfway through their sentences, to be supervised in the community by probation officers.

Using sentencing guidelines, judges ruled that those sentenced to life terms - apart from in murder cases - the "tariff" of time they must actually serve is arrived at by halving the equivalent determinate sentence.

In the Sweeney case, the 24-year-old offender - who kidnapped his child victim from her home in Rumney, Cardiff, in January - was given a sentence discount of one third for entering an early guilty plea.

What is needed is a measured and systematic approach to the criminal justice system, not panic measures
Harry Fletcher

His prison licence period for an attack on another child had run out just weeks before.

His minimum tariff was set in accordance with Home Office rules.

Following the case, Home Secretary John Reid pledged to examine whether judges should be given the power to dictate that serious offenders should serve longer in jail than the current guidelines allowed.

Mr Reid said: "Courts should be rigorous in applying their powers to protect society against dangerous and violent criminals.

"That is why we need to strengthen judges' hands so they have greater discretion to impose even tougher sentences on offenders they believe pose a very serious risk."

The Home Office has also raised the prospect of introducing US-style sentences, such as "six years to life", which would mean the lower figure would be the minimum jail term served.

'Major reform'

BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw says the Home Office believes judges should no longer be required to apply the halving principle.

He says ministers also want to give courts greater powers to keep non-violent offenders in jail beyond the halfway point of their sentences if they might pose a risk to the public.

Our correspondent says the proposals will mean "major reform" of the Criminal Justice Act, which came into force just 18 months ago.

Shadow home secretary David Davis said: "We would welcome this apparent conversion by the government, abandoning the policy it introduced in its 'flagship' Criminal Justice Bill just three years ago.

"However, if the government is to keep offenders in prison for longer, it needs to have adequate capacity."

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg said: "How can John Reid be taken seriously if he is now proposing to reverse sentencing measures which the government has only just introduced?"

With the prison population being as over-crowded as it is, I think judges will look to that as being the over-riding factor
Norman Brennan,
Victims of Crime Trust

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of probation union Napo, has dismissed the plans as "panic measures" to lessen the controversy surrounding the Craig Sweeney case.

"The public need clarity about sentencing, constant piecemeal change merely causes confusion."

Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, said: "When someone has been sentenced to long-term imprisonment for committing a serious crime, it is these types of criminal that the public needs protecting from most."

Ex-judge Keith Matthewman said: "Unfortunately, too many violent criminals go to prison early and are let out too early and so they don't care."

A crime victim's father calls for harsher sentencing

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