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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 June 2006, 14:24 GMT 15:24 UK
Protests against lenient sentencing unfair
By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

A prison officer locks the doors in Belmarsh maximum security prison in London
Despite protests, prisons are full or people sentenced for serious crimes
The disclosure that since 2000, 53 offenders serving life have been released from prison under licence is not, in itself, evidence of a flabby sentencing policy.

Despite a reconviction rate for all offenders of close to 60%, the figure for lifers is around 2%.

In the last decade, the lifer population in England and Wales has almost doubled to about 5,700 - which equals the total for the rest of the European Union put together.

According to Home Office-commissioned research, the Parole Board is more likely to over-estimate the risk to the public of releasing an offender than the reverse

So, however inflammatory the headlines, the fact is that the jails are full of people who have been sentenced for serious crimes.

The more serious charge levelled at the government is one of disingenuousness - talking tough while presiding over a justice process which frees the dangerous.

Here, too, the facts present a more complex picture. It is true that under the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, criminals who have completed half of a sentence of over 12 months are eligible for automatic release on licence.

But it is rarely reported that the recall rate for breaching the licence has risen at an unprecedented rate.

A report by the chief inspector of prisons shows that the number of recalls to custody rose from 3,182 in 2000/1 to more than 11,000 in 2004/5.

Moreover, according to Home Office-commissioned research, the Parole Board is more likely to over-estimate the risk to the public of releasing an offender than the reverse.

Logo for the England and Wales Parole Board
Parole board has also been criticised
In the case of life sentence prisoners, the process for consideration of early release is as follows.

Initially, a single Board member will look at the application. If considered likely to be suitable, it is referred to a panel of three who will make a paper decision.

It might be concluded at that point, or go on to an oral hearing. The home secretary also has the right to request an oral hearing.

According to the prime minister, the majority of the 53 life sentence prisoners released since 2000 were sentenced under the provisions of the 1997 Crime Sentences Act which brought in an automatic life term for a second serious violent or sexual crime.

This was a Conservative piece of legislation. Labour's chief contribution to public protection sentencing is the 2003 Act which introduced an indeterminate sentence for those considered to be a serious ongoing danger to the public.

So far, six of those offenders have applied for parole. It has not been granted in any of the cases.

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