Page last updated at 15:47 GMT, Wednesday, 2 April 2008 16:47 UK

Top judge attacks early release

Lord Phillips
Lord Phillips says a clearer sentencing structure is needed

The most senior judge in England and Wales has criticised the early release of prisoners under a scheme to reduce prison overcrowding.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, said it was "an erosion of the sentence the judge had imposed" and called for a clear sentencing structure.

More than 18,000 offenders have been released early since last June.

The Ministry of Justice said data suggested "the scheme is working well", but it would be monitored "carefully".

In the past week, it emerged two convicted terrorists and seven sex offenders had been among them.

Clear sentencing

Lord Phillips's comments follow the publication on Monday of his annual review of the courts, in which he blamed a stream of legislation for seriously overstretching the courts.

He said: "It is still difficult for the public to understand sentencing as a whole.

"Where prisoners are released in these circumstances, that is to a degree, not a large degree - an erosion of the sentence that the judge imposed and anticipated would be served.

"I think it would be very much better if one had a clear sentencing structure, where if you imposed a sentence you could see how long that individual might spend in prison and when they would be eligible for parole."

The Ministry of Justice said about 21,000 prisoners had been freed under the early release scheme between 29 June and 28 February 2008.

"Of those released, we have been notified that about 4% have been recalled," a spokesman said.

On-the-spot fines

He said: "We are monitoring the scheme carefully."

The spokesman added that the data collected "indicates that the scheme is working well and the rate of recall has been lower than expected".

Lord Phillips also said he had concerns about on-the-spot fines, saying if they were repeatedly used by police, magistrates would not get to know persistent offenders in their area.

And he voiced concern about the growing number of people representing themselves in court.

"I view with concern the steadily increasing numbers of litigants in person, due in part to difficulties of getting legal aid.

"It makes the task of dealing with a case more difficult and time-consuming.

"This problem is particularly acute in relation to the family jurisdiction."




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