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EDITIONS
Sunday, 22 September, 2002, 16:16 GMT 17:16 UK
Lib Dems signal harder line on crime
Simon Hughes
Hughes wants harsher treatment for violent criminals

Judges should be more selective about who they jail - with harsher sentences being targeted at violent offenders, the Liberal Democrat conference will be told.

Home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes is to outline what he says is a toughening up of the party's line on crime at conference in Brighton on Monday.


We are becoming an intolerant, impatient and violent society

Simon Hughes
He says he has proposals "that will sound harder than people sometimes think Liberals would expect to sound on dealing with the sort of nuisance and vandalism that people complain of all the time".

Mr Hughes also argues that there are too many people locked up in prison for crimes like failing to pay a TV licence.

He says that judges should be allowed to differentiate between offences involving violence and those committed by the mentally ill, or by people with drug and alcohol addictions.

Selective

Custodial sentences should be no shorter than a year - but also no more than 10 years in many cases.

A prison warder
Too many people are locked up, says Mr Hughes
"We will be saying very strongly that there are perfectly good ways of having a more orderly society, reducing crime, increasing public safety, without taking away more and more liberties from more and more people," said Mr Hughes.

"It means you don't lock up more people. You are actually more selective about who you lock up because we have many women who shouldn't be in prison.

"We have people in prison that shouldn't be for crimes like not paying your TV licence.

"We have many people who are mentally ill who should be in hospital, not in prison.

"And we have many people in prison who are only there because they haven't got the treatment for their drug or alcohol addiction, sex problems, anger problems.

"Most of them come out and if we haven't rehabilitated them by then, they are actually more dangerous to society."

'Uncivilised society'

Mr Hughes warns that while crime figures are falling, violence against strangers is becoming a growing menace.


Nicking from the cash point may be wrong, but it doesn't have the same harmful effect as clumping somebody on the head

Simon Hughes
"There is now more drug and alcohol induced violence and there is more gratuitous violence on people who you have never seen, whether you meet them in a pub on a Friday night or whether they are a pensioner getting off a bus.

"For me, that is the big challenge for Britain. We are becoming an intolerant, impatient and violent society and that's not a civilised society and we have to pull back from that.

Harmful

"If we can separate how we deal with people who are violent from how we deal with people who are maybe wicked, sinful and dishonest, but who are not violent, then I think we will be beginning to get the argument right.

"Nicking from the cash point may be wrong, but it doesn't have the same harmful effect as clumping somebody on the head or putting a gunshot wound through their lung."

"From 16 upwards it is not acceptable that people are violent to each other, whether it is partners at home, parents to kids or people in the pub on a Friday night or at the football match.

"The proposition will be that courts will regard that as always more serious than equivalent offences without violence and everybody would understand that they would be punished more severely for that."

Locked up

Mr Hughes, a barrister, claims that short jail terms are ineffective and six month sentences do not give the Prison Service any time for rehabilitation.

A judge's wig
Judges need to be given more discretion on sentencing, says Hughes
"You literally keep them locked up, you let them out again and nothing has changed," he said.

But a sentence of 20 years can result in the inmate becoming "institutionalised".

"So we should concentrate on keeping custody for people over 16 for no less than a year and no more than 10 years, and where it really has a programme of rehabilitation as well as the punishment."

Delegates at the party conference will be voting on Mr Hughes proposal for victims of crime to make appeals to the judge before a defendant is sentenced.

"I think the criminal justice system has not looked after victims enough," he said.

Pornography

"If a defendant or his lawyer is entitled to say what a terrible effect of sending them to prison will be on them, I think the victim, if they want to, or the relative, if they can't do it, should be able to say what the effect of the crime has been on them, in person to the judge before the sentencing."

One potential area of embarrassment for the party leadership is a debate on liberalising the law on pornography.

The Liberal Democrats Youth and Students Organisation has tabled a motion saying adults should be free to choose what they see, the age of 16 should be the threshold and that the industry should be better regulated.

Mr Hughes says he does not believe there is the appetite for such a proposal, which he claims has not been properly thought out.

And with ambitions that go far beyond the Liberal Democrats third-party status, Mr Hughes insists: "If you want to be in government, you can't make policy that is not thought through."

Wicked

He is also critical of the possibility of the government proposing plans for ID cards, or entitlement cards, another issue up for debate during conference.

Mr Hughes argues that they will not prevent social security fraud, influxes of illegal immigrants or terrorism.

"The French have had ID cards for years, decades - they have three million illegal workers," he said.

"The men who wickedly flew the planes into the twin towers had ID cards on them.

"If you are a suicide bomber, you don't worry that people know who you are - in fact you are quite pleased that they do."


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