Page last updated at 18:42 GMT, Monday, 6 July 2009 19:42 UK

Convicted killers still at large

Prison wardens
Hundreds of offenders who should be in prison remain at large

Nearly 1,000 offenders who should have been sent back to prison are still at large, according to Justice Secretary Jack Straw.

They include 19 convicted murderers who have not been returned to custody.

Also free are rapists and people convicted of manslaughter who were on licence from jails in England and Wales between January 1999 and March 2009.

The Conservatives said the figures would shock the public and accused the government of putting people at risk.

They blamed the government's Labour's "reckless" early release scheme and "lax approach" to probation.

Figures published by the National Offender Management Services (NOMS) show 935 offenders whose licences had been revoked had not been returned to jail as they should have been.

As well as murderers, those still free include two people convicted of manslaughter and 26 others convicted of sexual offences, including 12 for rape or attempted rape.

Dano Sonnex
Dano Sonnex should have been in prison when he tortured and murdered two young French students in London.

Released on licence after serving part of an eight-year sentence for violent crimes, the 23-year-old drug user was accused of further offences, and should have been recalled to jail.

But blunders by the probation service meant he was free to walk the streets - and, with an accomplice, stab Gabriel Ferez and Laurent Bonomo to death.

Mr Straw said the recall system was working well, with less than 1% of recalled offenders not returned to jail between 1999 and 2008.

"Ten times more offenders are being recalled to prison each year than before 1997 as a result of our tough new recall regime," he said.

"Only about 10,000 offenders were recalled in the 15 years between 1984 and 1999 - when our new measures were implemented - and the old system was cumbersome and court based.

"Since then, 92,000 offenders have been recalled.

"Of those recalled between 1999 and June 2008, just 0.7% of offenders have not been apprehended.

"But we are far from complacent and recognise that the system has to be strengthened further, not least in respect of those serious offenders who remain at large."

'Lost track'

But Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve said: "The whole point of releasing prisoners on licence is that they can be monitored and returned to prison if they commit a breach.

"The public will be shocked that the government has lost track of almost 1,000 criminal fugitives - including murderers, paedophiles and sex offenders.

"Labour's reckless early release scheme and lax approach to probation is putting the public at greater risk. Cuts to frontline probation services will only make this situation even worse."

The Ministry of Justice also confirmed a further 19 offenders whose licences had been revoked between 1984 and 1999 were also not sent back to prison - though procedures were different in this period, said our correspondent.

Liberal Democrat justice spokesman David Howarth demanded ministers come to Parliament to explain the situation.

Ministers claim these offenders can be recalled at any time, but worryingly, some have managed to evade justice for up to a quarter of a century
David Howarth, Liberal Democrat Justice spokesman

He said: "Rather than slipping these figures out hoping no one will notice, ministers should come to Parliament and explain why nearly a thousand recalled prisoners are being allowed to run free.

"The government's failed prison policy, which has left our prisons bursting at the seams, has led to thousands of prisoners being let out early.

"Ministers claim these offenders can be recalled at any time, but worryingly, some have managed to evade justice for up to a quarter of a century."

Harry Fletcher, from the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "It looks a lot, but it's a thousand out of something like 35,000 people a year who are released."

He added: "The system is, if somebody doesn't turn up twice, automatically a warrant is issued by the court to the relevant police station and they have to find them.

"But, often, when the police go round to the last address they are not there."

Licence criteria

The Criminal Justice Act 1991, which only applies to offences committed before 4 April 2005, provides for the automatic release of prisoners at the halfway point of their sentence for those serving up to four years.

The Act also provides for automatic release at the two-thirds point of the sentence for those serving four years or more, subject to probation supervision until the three quarter point of sentence.

Prisoner licences can be revoked if offenders regularly fail to attend probation or other appointments connected with their licence conditions.
Offenders might also be recalled for failing to live at an address approved by the probation service
Recall can also occur if a prisoner freed on licence is suspected of or charged with further offences.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003, which applies to offences committed on or after 4 April 2005, provides for the automatic release of prisoners at the halfway point, with probation supervision for those serving 12 months or more until the end of their sentence.

The data on recalled offenders was published following an audit of the work of police, probation areas and the United Kingdom Border Agency.

It was carried out by NOMS, which has responsibility for licence revocation policy.

As part of the audit, NOMS wrote to each police force and Probation Area in England and Wales with a list for each area of all offenders who have been recalled but have yet to be returned to custody.

'Open justice'

Police and probation officers were asked to check the list and examine whether some offenders might be removed - because, for example, they had been returned to custody under a different name or had died.

They were also asked to renew their efforts efforts to return these individuals into custody.

The Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said that this was the first time the government had published this information.

"It is part of a commitment to open justice and ensuring communities have as much information as possible about the Criminal Justice System," she said.

Following the audit, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) has written to all police forces in England and Wales, asking them to take priority action to arrest and return to custody all those offenders on the list who had previously been convicted of sexual or violent offences.

The Northern Ireland Prison Service said there were no plans for a similar audit to be held there, and a spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said there were 15 cases of prisoners with outstanding recall orders.

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