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Friday, 31 May, 2002, 11:58 GMT 12:58 UK
Minimum term for murder reduced
Guard in prison
'Ordinary' murderers must serve at least 12 years
The minimum term which must be served by murderers and other offenders sentenced to life in England and Wales has been reduced from 14 to 12 years.

The Lord Chief Justice told judges the 12-year term should apply to most murders, for which a life sentence is mandatory.

For murders with mitigating circumstances, such as a mercy killing or a murder after sustained abuse, minimum terms of eight or nine years were "justified".

Other murders, such as contract killings, racially aggravated murders, multiple killings or sadistic murders, were given a higher minimum term of 16 years or more.

Murders carrying 12-year minimum term
'Normal' murder - generally perceived as the killing of an adult, arising from a quarrel between two adults who knew each other
In cases of exceptional gravity, judges were told to state there was no minimum period.

Lord Woolf made it clear that it was "most unlikely" offenders would serve only their minimum term.

He said the minimum term was often half the length of time the prisoner actually spent in jail.

Lord Woolf also ruled that the minimum term should no longer be known as a "tariff", as that word had frequently been misunderstood.

He said the phrase "minimum term" made it clearer that, even on release, the life sentence continued until the offender died.

Politicians' involvement

Under current practice, the judge's recommended minimum term is usually passed to the home secretary, who then makes the final decision on how much time the offender should serve.

Murders carrying lower minimum terms
Murders close to manslaughter
Offender suffering mental disorder
Provocation such as abuse
Over-reaction in self-defence
Mercy killing
The home secretary has also been deciding how long the prisoner must serve after the minimum term expires.

In almost all cases, the home secretary follows judicial and parole board advice.

However, the European Court of Human Rights ruled earlier this week that judges, not politicians, should decide whether lifers should remain in prison after they have served their minimum term.

For young offenders, Lord Woolf took one year off the 12-year minimum term for each year the offender was less than 18.

Murders carrying 16 years and up
Murder of a prison officer or on-duty public servant
Contract killing
Political murder
Terrorist murder
Sadistic or sexual murders
Murder of a young child
Where the victim was targeted because of race, religion or sexual orientation
Multiple murder
That is, a 16-year-old murderer would expect a minimum term of 10 years; a 10-year-old killer a starting point of eight years.

Lord Woolf said young offenders (those aged under 18 at the time of the offence) should now be given minimum terms in almost all cases of a life sentence.

It said that if a minimum sentence was not fixed the home secretary would, in due course, decide when to release the young offender.

The BBC's Danny Shaw
"The guidelines are based on recommendations from the Sentencing Advisory Panel"
Harry Fletcher of the Probation Officers' union
"It will bring greater transparency and I hope greater public confidence"
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