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Tuesday, 10 July, 2001, 10:31 GMT 11:31 UK
Are tougher jail sentences the answer?

UK Home Secretary David Blunkett has warned violent criminals they will spend longer in jail if they continue to offend.

Under his proposals, courts will have the power to deal more severely with the 100,000 repeat offenders said to be responsible for about half of all crimes in England and Wales.

The plans would require an extra spending of up to 600m to build the 15 new prisons needed to cope with the increase in numbers being jailed.

But critics say there is no evidence to support the suggestion that tougher sentences deter repeat offenders.

Do you think tougher sentencing is the right solution? Will repeat offenders be deterred? Or will it simply lead to an increase in the prison population?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

I think that the purpose of the prison is to remove from society those people who are a physical threat to the other members of the society i.e. murderers, rapists, armed thieves and the criminally insane. The rest can be punished is more creative and less expensive ways. Therefore, if there is not enough room in the prisons to accommodate the violent people from the society, let the Government build more.
Garth, Zimbabwe

I've yet to hear a plausible alternative

Jez, UK
All those who keep on about rehabilitation, prison not working etc, never give a proper alternative. How do you "rehabilitate" an arrogant, totally selfish, sociopath, career criminal? How do you prevent these people from committing crimes whilst they are being "rehabilitated"? What do you do with those who won't/can't be rehabilitated? It's easy to criticise, but I've yet to hear a plausible alternative.
Jez, UK

If you only focus on jail sentences and not education then all you are really teaching is how to go to jail. Look at the United States, they have five percent of the world's population and twenty five percent of the world's prison population. Do we see crime at a low level there, no we don't it is very high. If you look at Quebec Canada you will see that they take care of the people and educate them and as a result they have the lowest crime rate in Canada.
Bryan, Canada

After years of being noticeably soft on crime, getting softer everyday, what is your alternative to introducing tougher jail sentences? Even softer jail sentences? No wonder the UK's crime rate is skyrocketing.
Stephen, US

I do not think longer jail sentences are the answer. The conditions in British prisons are not conducive to punishment, the only thing the prisoner feels is the lack of freedom. Take away the comforts, the TV sets, the sumptuous meals, the gyms. Then offenders will think twice. I live in Botswana, a country which practices flogging for certain offences and retains the death penalty despite attempts by groups like Amnesty International to reverse this. The crime rate is much lower, people can still walk the streets at night in most places in safety. The law is on the criminal's side in today's UK society and this must be reversed
Andy, Botswana

I find it amazing that so many contributors are still advocating the "we must try to understand" or "stop sending people to prison". We've been trying to understand for over 20 years and we still don't understand! Why is it that so many groups work to protect the rights of prisoners, all we have is talk of their human rights, do victims not have rights? i.e. a right to justice. When hearing about criminals who come from deprived backgrounds, it's an insult to all the people who have faced the same obstacles in life but not succumbed to a life of crime.

If we don't do something soon then justice will break down as ordinary people lose faith and either turn into or turn to vigilantes. Lets build more prisons, lock the career criminals up, but try to offer them training and help on the inside. At least inside they are not harming the 58 million of us who choose to lead law-abiding lives.
Andrew K, UK

Longer jail sentences won't work. Prevention is better than cure. Find out why they got into trouble, education, ensure kids aren't brought up with rotten parents, give them a better environment. Sticking them for longer in prison isn't helping them at all. They just learn more things, still get drugs etc and then re-offend because they can't cope in the outside world and no one wants them. Putting them in prison just gets them out of our way and is political. It just looks good on the statistics. What about prevention of the crime in the first place, more action on drugs i.e. in schools etc.
Jacinta, UK

How about tougher sentences in the first place?
Stephen Luke, Wales

Perhaps, if these repeat offenders were offered opportunities for rehabilitation they wouldn't offend repeatedly. Why can't this "Labour" Government at least try to change the tone of the debate. They just won a second landslide for goodness sake. Show a little backbone Blunkett. (And I'm a victim of violent crime).
Steve, UK

If conditions inside prisons weren't as cushy as they seem to be, longer jail terms may not be necessary. I don't think that having gyms, snooker tables and the like are punishing them. It's like trying to send a child to his/her room as punishment, but what's the point when they have TV's hi-fis, mobile phones and computers?
Diane Coleman, UK

The major factor in deterring criminals is to have them believe that there is a good chance they will be caught

Bill, UK
While I think longer sentences for repeat offenders is part of the answer, it's not the complete story. When someone is about to commit a crime, they do so because they believe they will not get caught and therefore the potential sentence regardless of its severity is not a deterrent. The major factor in deterring criminals is to have them believe that there is a good chance they will be caught. More police on the ground to catch them, less bureaucracy in processing offenders and quicker response times will all help more than the promise of a severe sentence that the offender never believes he will have to face up to.
Bill, UK

Weak sentencing has obviously not been successful from the soaring crime rates, particularly with regard to "quality of life" crimes, or "petty" crimes as some non-victims call them. When burglars are convicted and ask for 50 other offences to be taken into consideration, then are then given 18 months of which they will only serve 6 - 9 months, there is no way that this is either a deterrent or a punishment. Low-level criminals in this country having virtually nothing to lose, chances of being caught are slim, and sentencing is a joke!
Graeme, England

There is always going to be a hard core that will offend whatever the potential punishment. I'm beginning to think that the US style "Three hits and you're out" may not be such a bad idea. Going to jail for theft or whatever is one thing but if you knew that three convictions meant life, that would certainly give repeat offenders something to think about. At the moment it's a case of "I might get sent down or I might not", or two years, eighteen months for good behaviour. If I thought next time I get 25 years whatever the crime, I'd think about it. But it's got to de done and it's got to consistent.
Keith, Switzerland

The government tells us that most of the crime in the UK is committed by around 100,000 constant offenders (UK jails currently have 60,000 inmates). Build enough jails to house 100,000 "hardened" criminals, issue a three strikes and you're out policy, reform those that wish to be reformed, help those who need help, and let the 56.8 million law abiding citizens of this country have some peace of mind instead of being terrorised day and night by a tiny minority. Hard but fair.
Bob, UK

No, repeat offenders will simply make bigger efforts not to be caught. The less you leave people to lose, the more out of control they get. Money to reduce crime is better spent on detectives than on prisons.
Malcolm McMahon, York, UK

The penal system in this country and most others is extremely out of date. The idea of locking people up as punishment has been proven not to work. A very high number of prisoners are likely to re-offend once they have served their sentences. In my opinion the only logical answer would be to spend the millions of pounds keeping the prison system going on educating lesser offenders so they can attempt to gain employment and regain their place in society. Most so-called career criminals gain their knowledge "on the inside". There is also a high degree of drug abuse in the prison system which only refuels the need for some to commit crimes when released. It is about time the whole of the criminal justice system was examined in depth to look for viable alternatives to an age-old problem.
Owen, Wales

You mean that this is an admission that current sentencing is too soft? Shouldn't the punishment match the crime? If someone has murdered, then "life" should mean LIFE in prison. They have taken a life, so they lose their right to freedom, and prison life should be harsh, to act as a deterrent. Unlike other countries where the death penalty is imposed, at least we just lock them up.
Phil W, UK

Looking at Britain's education system might solve the problem before it starts

Peter Robinson, Southport, Merseyside
Surely preventing crime should be as important, if not more important, than coping with the results of crime. "Tough on the causes of crime" we were told. Looking at Britain's education system might solve the problem before it starts. A high proportion of young offenders are dyslexic, why weren't they tested at a much younger age? Even the "worst" children can become good citizens given a good education. Better this happens in school than in a young offenders institute.
Peter Robinson, Southport, Merseyside

Life should mean life. If a person rapes, savages or kills another human being they should be incarcerated for the rest of their living years. After all the victim has no future - why should the criminal.
Sharon B, UK

I wonder whether those who want to throw away the key have any concept of why criminals are criminals. They quickly take the moral high ground, but how can they judge without full knowledge of motives, circumstances, education, upbringing and intelligence level? I would hazard a guess that most career criminals that go through the prison system are, by any standards, from deprived circumstances - NOT an excuse for crime, but certainly a mitigating factor from which the moralists no doubt do not suffer. Longer prison sentences might keep criminals off the streets for longer but if prison doesn't change them we're doomed to perpetuate the whole sorry cycle. Start treating criminals as human beings, not so different from ourselves, albeit flawed, and we start to crack the whole vicious circle of deprivation and crime. (There but for the grace of God go you and I.)

Depending on the crime, for non-violent offenders community service with a curfew and some sort of glaringly obvious tag which might bring a sense of shame. It is possible that this shaming might make them think twice before re-offending
Stan H, UK

Tougher sentences don't deter offenders - they keep them away from the rest if us, and that's great. If someone is in jail, she is not out there committing crimes. What the evidence seems to support is that it's reforming that doesn't work, not the sentences.
Karen Carter, UK

Just because we know what, how and why causes bubonic plague doesn't mean we should let it run riot, and we rightly don't. Maybe it really was society "Wot done it", but we are unlikely to even identify the contributing factors, let alone work on them or convict them. That's why we lock up the perpetrator, not his/her parents, teachers, grandparents, neighbours, friends, the council, the government, the class system, TV programming, advertising.
Bob Dainte, UK

Why not split the difference? Spend half the money for new prisons on new prisons and the other half on more police. Surely the research shows that risk of detection and conviction has a strong influence on crime figures. At the moment only a small proportion of crimes are solved - so only a small proportion of criminals are punished.
Joan, UK

Hang the worst, make prisons grim places, no TV etc, reverse remand rules, i.e. sentence never shortened but lengthened for bad behaviour. Young offenders to be named after initial first warning and parents made to pay for damage they cause- simple really just needs politicians with spine!
Les Barrow, UK

Either way, I think prisons have become much too comfortable, even when sentenced you get time off for good behaviour! If prisons didn't have the amenities they have now like, gyms, pools, snooker, darts etc, and three meals a day then offenders would think twice about their crimes. Prisons should be a punishment not a holiday camp!
Sha, UK

There's an inherent flaw in the logic that says you just keep jailing people until you have, presumably, jailed all the "bad" people. What percentage of the population has to be behind bars before everyone else is safe? One in twenty? Ten? Five? Interestingly, those who are advocating the Keep Jailing policy are making a massive public spending commitment, if their policy is taken to it's natural conclusion. I wonder, are the British public willing to pay the massive taxes that such a policy would logically entail?
Jason O'Mahony, Ireland

Rachel, these people don't want to understand the implications of their actions. They really don't care about anyone or anything but themselves. It's all part of the same lack of courtesy and respect that is endemic in our society. Build more prisons if need be, lock them up, if they repeat offend lock them up for longer. Whilst off the streets at least the public has one less sociopath to deal with.
Garry, England

Perhaps a start would be for criminals to actually do the time they are sentenced to and not allow multiple sentences to run concurrently. The jail term a prisoner is given should be the minimum they will serve with good behaviour not the maximum. Good behaviour should mean no time is added onto the sentence, not that time is knocked off it. It's a joke that a third of a sentence can be knocked off for good behaviour. Sentences should be seen as a real deterrent to doing crime not the nonsense they are now. If you get sentenced for two separate crimes and each carries 5 years you should have to serve 10 years, not 5 less time off for being good. There might also be less repeat offending as the repeat offenders would be spending longer in prison in the first place!.
Richard, UK

I don't think that longer sentences act as a deterrent, but an increase chance of getting caught does, I think that the money would be better spent on more police and CCTV, this would also mean that we would be actually stopping crime instead of simply punishing after the fact, when they have spread misery to the victims of crime.
Ben Yates, UK

The prison system rarely reforms offenders, despite the amount of money invested in this. Releasing criminals into the community usually results in them re-offending fairly quickly. The only way to protect the populace is to keep criminals in prison for longer - it won't help the criminal, but it'll keep them away from decent society for a bit longer.
David Grahame, Surrey, UK

Perhaps Mr Blunkett should consider an alternative to prison wherever that is appropriate. If an offender is considered less likely to re-offend then there should be a sentence involving realisation of the consequences as well as a reciprocal contribution, perhaps public service. To deter repeat offences in these cases the offender should place a deposit of a large sum of money, or their CD collection or something like that to be returned after a suitable period, perhaps 2 years. This should free up some prison space.

However, the fundamental failure of crime policy so far by all governments has been a lack of imagination on tackling the primary cause of repeat offending - drugs and addiction. As long as junkies HAVE to steal to get their fixes, as long as the dealers fight for turf then we will have a huge crime problem. Until a Home Secretary finds the courage to look imaginatively at this issue we will be caught in the circle of more crime spawning ever tougher sentencing until the prisons burst at the seams.
Nick C, UK

You need to look at what it is you want to gain from prison. If it is purely retribution then yes prison is the best place. However what to do with people on release? If prisons worked as a deterrent they would be empty apart from a few who would be better in hospital. Is it not better to protect the public by rehabilitating people and monitoring them rather than just locking them up?
Andrew Stanton, Colombia

Yes repeat offenders should have longer sentences. But also they should have to prove legal ownership of everything in their homes with the burden of proof being on the offender. Not just theirs but their partner's as well. They should see how they like their property being taken away. This would also help prevent the partners of crooks living on their criminal gains and turn living with a repeat offender into being a massive liability. Being a criminal might be exciting but if no one will go out with you it might make people think twice.
Will, Norwich, UK

Getting tough on criminals is good. It is necessary to deter crime, and to make clear to existing and would be criminals that we as a society intend to make their actions accountable. What is wrong, is mandatory sentencing, which takes the ability of the court to determine the level, intent, and background, or a criminal act into account when sentencing is made. Just look at us in the U.S., we have mandatory sentencing for most crimes, what has this left us, a stiff bill to pay, and a correction industry that is booming.

Judges know best what is good for society that is their job, politicians who make sentencing laws, are subject to public opinion, and WILL utilize their legislative power to grow their support base regardless of the final effect on society. To sum it up, just look at the statistics, 3 of 5 prisoners in the U.S.A are in jail due to mandatory sentences for a first time non-violent drug offence. We have 35% of the world prisoners, but only 6% of the world's population, and 70% of out inmates are from a racial minority. Don't let this happen to England, you British have more sense than to adopt our American gun-ho cowboy mentality. Best of luck.
Manuel Valencia, USA

I am in my third year at university studying criminal justice and so far I have found little evidence to suggest that the penal system is effective. The prison population is already at it's highest, so does that not show that there are serious flaws in the prison system. We all look at prison as the ultimate sentence, but do we see our prisons as a deterrent? I really think that steps have to be taken to evaluate the penal system before crowding our prisons further.
Joanne, UK

If there were an increase in the prison population of the UK because of Mr Blunkett's plans, then so be it! Criminals are getting away with sentences that, in the first instance, are far too light. And even then, there is a peculiar tendency for them to serve only half of the sentence handed down to them.
A Horan, Scotland

Maybe the question here is not whether offenders should go to prison, but how they should be kept there. If they are to be punished then they should have no TV, video etc. They should wear a prison uniform and be allowed fewer visits with no contact. Maybe we should start to take the view that prison is a place where someone who has done wrong is shown what it is like to have to do without, not be pampered and encouraged to believe the opposite. It seems that all too often these days the people who do wrong are given all, while the people who do right get nothing!
Dave, UK

I am a firm believer in sending criminals to jail, but I do not think that this should form the basis of an offender's punishment. Instead, we should give them gruelling community service projects such as scrubbing graffiti off walls and repairing damage caused by their vandalism. I also think that the victims (who are always forgotten in these circumstances) should be given a say in how the criminal is punished. However, I also believe in locking up dangerous criminals such as rapists and I think murder should carry the death sentence.
Leon, U.K.

"Prevention is better than cure" Simple as that, I'd much prefer to have police on the beat deterring criminals and making the streets a safer place, because, however long or short their sentence is, what good are they to the good people of Britain? Just more taxpayers' money going down the drain.
Craig Barber, England

Absolutely! What you must remember is that unless it is an incredibly serious offence, i.e. murder, rape, armed robbery with guns fired, offenders are extremely unlikely to receive a prison sentence for their first offence, or even their second, third or fourth! As a serving police officer, I have seen this time and time again. Fine, for a middling offence, like domestic burglary or assaults, consider a non-custodial sentence for the first offence only, but by the time people have been fined, given probation, driving bans, community service etc and re-offended yet again, they have already had numerous chances to change their lifestyle and have chosen not to take them.

I do not for one second buy the argument that people "need" to commit crime because they are poor or badly educated. I work a disadvantaged inner-city area, I see poverty at work every day, and yet the vast majority never break the law, be they poor, badly educated, or sufferers of abuse in the past. Don't make excuses for prolific offending, because there are none.
Nick Hogarth, UK

The purpose of the criminal justice system should be to minimise the amount of crime in society. It is clear that harsher sentencing has no effect on levels of crime and therefore it is pointless as a method of reducing crime. But Blunkett, of course, is not proposing this because he wants to reduce crime; he is proposing it because he wants to win votes. That is fair enough: after all it is the job of a politician in a democracy to win votes. However, let us hope that he is also going to do something that will actually deal with crime, otherwise those votes will vanish as the crime rate continues to rise.
Daniel Kitto, United Kingdom

I don't think there is one single answer to crime. In certain circumstances longer jail sentences may stop some people from either becoming criminals or re-offending. But having said that, its not going to be the answer to our country's growing problems with crime. Now there are a lot more young criminals than there previously has been. This is because of a lack of discipline at home with weak parenting, and also a lack of discipline in schools, basically because teachers have so little power to deal with pupils. If kids were disciplined at home and teachers had more power to do likewise, then this will ease the problem quite considerably over time.
Phillip Porteous, Cumbria

Criminals who "transgress in order to subsist let alone live" don't really exist in the UK. People so hungry and poor that they have to shoplift bread from the supermarket are nowhere as numerous as the thugs that will kill you for drug money or just for the fun of it. The destitute and poor aren't the subject of this government proposal, it's the hardened criminals, and these should be locked away for as long as possible.
Stephen Barrett, UK

The do-gooders have had their methods tried and tested, they failed. All that they achieved is to create more "soft" jobs rehabilitating genuinely bad people. Tougher sentencing has got to be worth a try.
Rory McKnight, UK

If Blunkett reformed our crazy drug laws, he could probably close down 15 prisons instead of opening 15 new ones.
Geraint, UK

Just look at the huge prison population of America and its crime rate and social problems and I don't think the question needs raising again. We need to look at why people commit crime in a sympathetic manner - most people that are "criminals" are not the scum that the tabloids would have us believe they are.
Simon, England

Clearly something needs to be done about habitual criminals

Michael Franks, UK
Clearly something needs to be done about habitual criminals who know that they'll only face a token sentence each time they commit violent crime. If criminals are made aware of a "three strikes and you're out" policy, then this would deter most of them. Criminals may be dumb, but they're not stupid - after the first hundred crooks had each received ten sentences for their third mugging, word would quickly spread among the criminals that the judicial system meant business.
Michael Franks, UK

There is no evidence that longer sentences deter people. Possibly because people don't want to commit crime, but because they need to, for whatever reason (usually financial). Perhaps it's time to look into the causes of crime (poverty, child abuse, poor education)? This won't happen as long as we cling to this religious "people are born evil" argument though.
Alex, UK

Rather than having tougher sentences, make doing time a real punishment for repeat offenders, rather than just a stint in a hotel with bars. Make them do some useful, hard, exhausting work and use the money this earns to pay compensation to their victims. No doubt this would violate their human rights and raise howls of protest but why should those who continually violate the human rights of others be allowed to have their own rights preserved at all costs?
Ian, UK

Sentencing repeat offenders to longer terms works

Ted, USA
Sentencing repeat offenders to longer terms works - not necessarily through deterrence, but certainly through unavailability. An incarcerated criminal does not have the opportunity to continue preying on society.
Ted, USA

Part of this new proposal is to reduce remission - or early release for some offenders. Most people completely fail to understand how remission works. Currently offenders are released early from their sentences if they behave in prison. Thus if a judge wants an individual to serve at least two years, he will be sentenced to three - on the basis that he'll be out in two as long as he's a good boy (if not he loses remission and can serve up to three). Understaffed jails rely on this threat of loss of remission to retain control - without it there's a far greater possibility of a repeat of the Strangeways situation of some years ago. It's a dangerous and ill thought out move, that will put prison staff at greater risk of harm. Will the government fund extra staff to compensate? - I think not.
Pete, UK

Every attempt should be made to reform first time offenders and minor criminals, with long stretches of community service. Let them give back to the society that keeps them. But repeat offenders, the career criminals who see nothing wrong with their chosen path in life, should be jailed for long periods of time. The three strikes and you're out rule here in the US works well because everyone is given an equal opportunity to reform themselves. Failure to do so after two offences, leading to the third *conviction* leads me to believe that they either do not wish to reform or cannot be made or induced to reform. In any case, it seems to be the same 4% or 5% of the population that reoffends. Why not reduce their affect on society - isn't that what the "justice" system is for, to protect its citizens?
Linda, USA

I personally couldn't care less about a criminal's deprived background

Mike S, UK
It's definitely the right solution, as the longer career criminals spend in prison, the less time they have at liberty to commit crime. We hear a great deal about the "rights of the prisoner" - well what about the rights of the victim of the crime that put them there in the first place? I personally couldn't care less about a criminal's deprived background - if I were to be the victim of a crime, I would want to see the perpetrator punished. The bottom line is that a criminal can always choose not to offend. If they choose to ignore that, they deserve the consequences.
Mike S, UK

Nice idea David, but you know as well as everyone else that as soon as you increase sentences, the "do-gooder" groups will be instantly at the European Courts to overturn it. Try to increase the severity of how they are punished and the same groups will be calling for "human rights" actions.
Kenny, UK

I think when we have created a fair and equal society where there is no rational reason for people to transgress in order to subsist, let alone live, we can take the moral high ground. The fact is the life chances offered to those at most risk of falling into 'criminal behaviour' patterns are not high enough in the normal economy. For us to request that they repent and ask for the forgiveness of we the decent people without us all being aware of our underlying hypocrisy is surely self-deception.
Binx, UK

If their behaviour was that good, they wouldn't be in prison in the first place

James, UK
Perhaps instead of imposing longer sentences the Government should consider actually making prisoners serve the sentence they were handed, rather than release them after only serving half of it for "good behaviour". If their behaviour was that good, they wouldn't be in prison in the first place.
James, UK

I think the US system of "three strikes and you are out" should be looked at seriously. It appears to have worked by reducing crime in New York, and there is no reason for it not to work here. We should also look at zero tolerance.
Gez, UK

Violent criminals should be sentenced for as long as legally possible. And for repeat offenders the sentences should be doubled to deter them from re-offending. To minimise the prison population, minor offenders should be released earlier and be placed under home arrest with ankle bracelets. Just because prisons are getting overcrowded, it doesn't mean we have to free murderers any earlier than needed.
Bob Culic, Australia

We need to understand why people offend and then target that reason

Rachel, UK
We need to understand why people offend and then target that reason. That is the only way in the long run that crime will be reduced. Offenders should also understand the damage that they have done to people and businesses. If they understand the full implications of their actions through it becoming personal to them they might think again before re-offending. Locking people away may hide the problem from the public's eyes, but it is still there. We all need to face the problem and try to help those who feel that they need to commit crimes to have a life. If it is required that people be sent to prison, conditions should be severe. It is not a holiday it is punishment!
Rachel, UK

If we want to claim to live in a civilised country, then the penal system has to attempt to reform as well as punish. But this works both ways. People make mistakes and sometimes do desperate things in desperate situations so we should be prepared to act reasonably to such people. But there needs to be genuine remorse and attempts to make recompense by the offender and many repeat offenders have shown that they are not prepared to do this. In the US they have a '3 strikes and you're out' policy. 3 serious criminal convictions and the third results in an automatic 25 year sentence. What's wrong with that? People cannot just hide behind the woes of society as an excuse for their actions.
Andrew Carter, UK

Yes of course this move will increase the prison population, but unless the critics can come up with a better idea, what alternative do we have? And at least while they are in prison they won't be committing crimes.
Gill, UK

Repeat offenders will not be deterred, because they don't actually believe they will be caught and sentenced until it actually happens! So, yes prisons will become more crowded, but that's not to say there should not be tougher sentences for those who continue their life of crime. At the very least it should be implemented because they deserve it and the law abiding public needs to be protected from these career criminals.
Mark R, UK

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See also:

05 Jul 01 | UK Politics
Blunkett targets violent offenders
26 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Straw's unfinished business
03 May 01 | UK Politics
Crackdown on repeat offenders
07 May 01 | UK Politics
Ministers kick-start poll campaign
08 May 01 | UK Politics
Persistent offenders targeted
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