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Last Updated: Monday, 12 May, 2003, 08:31 GMT 09:31 UK
Prison sentences: Should judges or politicians decide?
Parliament will be able to lay down guidelines for judges to say how long an offender should spend in prison before being considered for release, the home secretary has announced.

Whole-life terms will be imposed for terrorist murder or multiple murders of a premeditated, sexual or sadistic nature. The new rules will also dictate that offenders who abduct and murder a child should never be released from prison.

Under the existing system, the home secretary sets the minimum term, or tariff, and decides whether to release the prisoner on the recommendation of the Parole Board.

Do you think the new rules will make a difference? Should judges be allowed to determine tariffs independently or should politicians intervene? Will the new regulations act as a deterrent to would-be offenders?

The following comments reflect the balance of views we have received:

This debate is now closed. Read your comments below.

Your reaction:

One of the best parts about our legal system is the separation of the judiciary from political control, and it should continue. You only have to look at the corruption endemic in countries where the current political fashion controls the judges to realise we don't want that here. Judges decide sentences after hearing a case, politicians don't. It will be a sad and bad day for justice when sentences are decided on the basis of a grubby little politician garnering votes.
John, UK

The punishment may finally fit the crime
Rob Lynch, England
Let's have judges elected by the public, instead of the system already in place. If we don't like our MP, we can choose not to vote for him at the next election. If judges became elected and accountable to us, they would have to hand out the right sentences every time in order to keep on the good side of the public. Those who are too lenient will therefore not be elected, and the punishment may finally fit the crime.
Rob Lynch, England

David Blunkett is simply expressing the frustration that most of the public have over the unrepresentative and unaccountable clowns who run the legal system. One way or another, I am sure that public opinion will win in the end.
Martin, UK

Yes, the Parliament can pass new laws specifying a range of sentences for any crime - but the interpretation of the law should be left to the judiciary, not the legislature nor the executive. The court is only as good as the law passed by the lawmakers, so stop blaming the judges.

Judges are paid very high salaries and can afford safe levels of security. They do not have very much contact with the real crime ridden world we live in. In other words they don't really care if everyone else lives in fear.
Robert, GB

I am disgusted that life does not mean life any more. Of course the government should have the power to overrule the judiciary's decisions on serious crimes such as murder. Only then can we see an end to the ongoing farce that allows prisoners to walk free after serving sometimes less than half their sentences.
Josh MacDonald, England

Surely if our justice system is about rehabilitation rather than retribution then psychiatrists and other trained professionals should determine a suitable prison term dependent on the needs of the individual concerned?
Ramjam, Wales

Judges seem to get it so wrong
Cardy, UK
In an ideal world it should be the judges but time and time again they seem to get it so wrong. At least the politicians are more in touch with public opinion (most of the time).
Cardy, UK

Neither politicians nor judges! Hold a referendum with recommendations, and let the general public decide the tariffs. After all it is against the public that most crimes are committed.
Vincent Shaw-Morton, UK

Laws are the will of the people expressed through Parliament. It is entirely right that Parliament determines the possible range of sentencing. The job of the legal profession is to determine guilt or innocence and pronounce sentence within the permitted range. This is excellent legislation, clarifying the roles of the legislature and the judiciary.
Tom, UK

Blunkett has no elected mandate (this was not a manifesto pledge), no legal or psychological training, and may be acting contrary to the rule of law. Judges suffer fewer if any of these problems. Blunkett is a backward-thinking Conservative, and needs to be reined in now.
Nick Bannister, UK

Is political opinion enough in this country to set prison sentences? This means in theory that someone who was convicted of a crime, but then is elected into the right position he can act as a judge without being trained as such? How bizarre!
Volker, England (ex-Germany)

Politicians spend every day avoiding the truth on issues as it is
Gary, UK
With the past history of governmental intervention in court proceedings this is a very bad idea. I do not trust the judgement of politicians who spend every day avoiding the truth on issues as it is.
Gary, UK

Those who argue in favour of mandatory sentencing are simplistic in their black/white approach. Each crime is committed by a different person with a different background in different circumstances and for different reasons. I too believe that if a crime warrants a life sentence than the sentence should, in fact, be for life. Judges are best placed to make such decisions, and not the public, nor politicians.
Chas Knight, UK

Life should most certainly mean life. Aside from the public's concern about the judiciary not being "in touch", there is a real danger that if longer and more realistic sentences are not consistently passed down then there will be a resurgence in pro-capital punishment sentiment.
Christian, UK

An elected judiciary is an excellent idea. However, in the US they have such a system but it is overseen by an appointed body - the Supreme Court. For any such scheme to work the highest court must be elected also.
Jim McKenzie, Scotland

We have a right to safety and the government are responsible for providing that
Helen Goad, England
Judges have proved time and again they can not be trusted to hand out what the general public consider adequate sentences to serious offenders. In fact the jury should have some say as they are made up of the general public. We have a right to safety and the government are responsible for providing that.
Helen Goad, England

It is unlikely that any form of deterrent will prevent these serious crimes, as they are often committed by disturbed people that do not consider the consequences. However, punishment should be such that criminals are terrified at the very thought of criminal activity. Nonetheless, politicians should not be allowed to directly interfere with sentencing as their moral conviction is often very flexible and shifts with the prevailing political winds.
Onisillos Sekkides, UK

If judges handed out proper sentences in the first place then there would be no need for Mr Blunkett to intervene.
Jon, UK

The discussion here is scary. No mitigating circumstances? What about a girl who's being intimidated, fears she's going to be raped, and overreacts while defending herself? And look, the word "terrorist" has cropped up again just when we want to pass a more draconian law. Murder is an evil thing, but any legal system that is completely black and white is flawed.
Anon, UK

As usual David Blunkett reflects the views of the man in the street and more importantly the victims and their families. Many of the judiciary are totally out of touch with ordinary people's views as to their leniency and sometimes crass sentencing stupidity. David Blunkett represents the electorate and there will be overwhelming support for this bill. It's high time that the legal profession's un-elected monopoly on punishment should be brought to a swift conclusion!
K Humphrey, England

It seems to me that there are three possible motivations for Blunkett's latest idea:
1. Provide an effective deterrent against murder
2. Protect the public from dangerous murderers
3. Score cheap political points and win votes from the hang 'em and flog 'em brigade

Will it work? Let's see:
1. Are we really expected to believe that anyone who isn't deterred by a 12-year jail sentence would be deterred by a 30-year sentence?
2. Murderers are released from prison under the current system only when the parole board is satisfied that they no longer pose a danger to the public
3. Looks like a clear success!
Adam, UK

If the politicians set the prison terms then the judiciary have only themselves to blame
Dave Hough, UK
In the eyes of the general public, the judiciary have consistently failed to sentence serious offenders for long enough periods. It appears that they put far too much emphasis on listening to the defendants' excuses (ie having the wool pulled over their eyes) and letting them away with a light sentence. If the politicians set the prison terms then the judiciary have only themselves to blame for not listening.
Dave Hough, UK

Too many politicians will use hard punishments for crimes with a high media profile as simple vote winners. Allowing politicians to do this is like allowing the media to set sentencing.
Michael Shapley, Reading, UK

Are we now meant to believe that there is such thing as a "good murder" which requires relatively lenient sentencing? If someone were to intentionally kill a middle aged adult, for example, would this be more acceptable than doing the same thing to a child?
Perry, Bolton, UK

You only have to look at the case of Tony Martin to see the difficulties in just proposing these new rules, enforcing will be a nightmare, BUT we need to do something and soon.
Paul Ashton, England

Parliament has always determined sentencing. This simply more clearly defines what sentence is expected for different kinds of murder. I see no reason to release killers without very clear extenuating circumstances. A Lib Dem spokesman says that this removed any opportunity for forgiveness and redemption. It does not; it simply means that the murderer is in prison while they are being forgiven and redeemed.
J Davies, UK

Blunkett isn't interested in justice which must always be balanced and impassionate
David Patrick, UK
Why bother with judges at all? Why not open up the sentencing for the public to vote on? Blunkett says that an elected official has more weight than an unelected judge so a mob vote must surely be even better. Maybe we could put it on BBC 1 and get Dale Winton to host the show.

Blunkett is just trying to boost Labour's poll rating. He isn't interested in justice which must always be balanced and impassionate.
David Patrick, UK

Life should mean life. Consistency has to be seen to enable others to be aware of the penalties. Judges currently appear to be a law unto themselves, if there was legally the appropriate term for the crime, there could be no recourse. The justice system may then appear to be justice.
Ann, England

The lawmakers (eg Parliament) should set the law and make recommendations so that the laws are applied evenly by all judges. However, the judges must be allowed to use their own judgement and knowledge of the case and the law to set sentences. You cannot have sentences set by committee or by someone who has not sat through all the evidence of a trial. Otherwise you might as well do away with judges and have politicians sat on the bench. This is very dangerous.
Ian Camm, UK

The punishment should fit the crime - their life for the life they stole.
Helen Broten, Blackpool, UK

And there I was, thinking that the judges were well versed in law, and could apply sentences in a humane and sensible manner. Obviously Mr Blunkett is much more suitable to ascribing sentences to crimes, or is this just another vote winner..?
Shaun Lawrence, UK

When a serious crime has been committed, the punishment must be equally severe otherwise one ends up with an incongruous situation whereby a motorist committing petty offences gets jail time longer than a mugger or repetitive burglar who terrorises children or pensioners. The human rights of convicted felons should be automatically cancelled as they gave no thought to the rights of their victims.
David W. Shaw, Qatar

The one thing that has always appealed to me about the UK legal system is the moderation of emotion. With politicians setting the agenda when it comes to retribution and rehabilitation of criminals we are on the same road as the US legal system.

How long before we have some hotshot gun slinging vigilante dishing out justice "Texan" style? The law should be the preserve of politicians, leave justice to the trained professionals.
Matthew Tattersall, South African living in London

Life should mean life and if it means politicians setting sentences then so be it! It's the only way we get some sort of justice in this country.
Sarah Grant, UK

The determination of sentences should be political
DF Parker, UK
Judges are unelected by and unaccountable to society and are too far removed from reality they cannot be allowed to set sentences. The sentence should not only reflect on the crime but should also reflect the feelings of the population. Therefore the determination of sentences should be political.
DF Parker, UK

I have always believed that murderers who have taken another person's life should have their life taken from them and be forced to live in prison until the day they die. This, in my mind is only fair and just. The sentence which is handed down should reflect the crime which has been committed. There should be guidelines for crimes (not including murder) so that the jury can suggest a length to the judge and then it will be down to the judge to say yes and hand down that sentence or no and choose a sentence which he feels is suitable. Overall the main point is that the punishment should reflect the crime.
Lyndsey Sparrow, England

UK law should not be a power struggle between an elected Parliament and an appointed judiciary. The UK legal system derives its powers from the electorate through Parliament ie the law reflects the wishes and expectations of the majority and as such the judges should subordinate themselves to this elected body, not challenge it.
Mark, UK

Public confidence in the judicial system is critical
Paul Kynman, UK
Personally I would feel much more comfortable about judges setting sentence tariffs, given that they and not the home secretary have hopefully had all relevant information before them, but public confidence in the judicial system is critical. Both problems would be solved by having an elected judiciary.
Paul Kynman, UK

Of course David Blunkett is right. There doesn't seem to be any consistency in sentencing. There should be no mitigating reasons for anybody taking a life, if you take a life you should be prepared to give your life, even if it is only in prison.
Derek Frape, UK

To Derek Frape: if someone breaks into your house in the middle of the night would you wait to see whether they'll kill you, or would you do everything in your power to stop them hurting you? And if you end up killing them, I wonder if you would still agree that you should now spend the rest of your life in prison?
Natalie, UK

As I understand it, the politicians propose the law, the police enforce the law and the judges apply the law. But only if the Lords don't throw it out. When I was a boy I always thought life meant life. I remember when I found out it wasn't it was a bit like being told Santa Claus didn't exist.
Bob, UK

Life to mean life for worst crimes
07 May 03  |  Politics
Q&A: Life tariffs
21 Oct 02  |  UK News


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