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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 June, 2003, 18:13 GMT 19:13 UK
Blunkett pushes for justice reforms
Pensioner watches a burglar
People rate low crime as more important than heath and transport
Some sentences handed down to convicted criminals suggest to members of the public that judges have "lost their marbles", Home Secretary David Blunkett has warned.

He was referring to convicted paedophile Michael Wheeler, 36, who was jailed for three years earlier this month after pleading guilty to 11 charges of sexually related crimes against two 13-year-old girls.

Mr Blunkett, who has unveiled plans to get local communities more involved in the criminal justice system, expressed his irritation at the sentence.

I think that there is a lack of trust from the public when they read ... of the three year sentence for a 36-year-old having sex with several 13-year-olds
David Blunkett

He was asked on BBC Radio 4's Today programme about the assertion made by Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, that trust had broken down between the judges and politicians.

Mr Blunkett replied: "I don't think it has. I think that there is a lack of trust from the public when they read sentences, as they did last week for instance, of the three year sentence for a 36-year-old having sex with several 13-year-olds.

"They do wonder whether people have lost their marbles."

Sheriffs?

Wheeler, from Cambridge, used the internet to groom under-age girls for sex.

But detectives believe he deliberately exploited the current law on sentencing by waiting until his victims were 13 before committing the offences so he could avoid being jailed for life if caught.

In a speech on Wednesday evening, Mr Blunkett said more needs to be done to "engage" the public in the justice system so they did not feel like "impotent spectators".

He said: "The criminal justice system has to be firmly rooted in, and reflect, the community it serves to have people's trust."

Michael Wheeler
Michael Wheeler met the girls through internet chat rooms
The UK will not have directly elected police chiefs, but the home secretary believes that local commanders and prosecutors should get out more and become well-known figures.

"I merely make reference to the fact that in the United States they elect the district attorney," he told Today.

At the least, his proposals suggest looking at whether some of the members of local police authorities should be directly elected.

Mr Blunkett is mooting a name change for the Crown Prosecution Service, which decides the charges suspects face.

It could become the Public Prosecution Service to make people feel like they have someone "on their side".

In his speech he also raised the possibility of widening the pool for choosing senior police officers by looking abroad.

Jail debate

"Overseas recruitment is taken for granted in other areas of public service, industry and commerce, but appears to be considered an aberration when it applies to the police service," he said.

"Community justice centres" are another idea being examined.

Lord Woolf has already expressed alarm at the potential long-term effects on prison numbers of a new laws going through Parliament that will increase the jail terms for murderers.

Mr Blunkett, who was due to meet Lord Woolf on Wednesday, insisted that he could have "a genuine disagreement and still have a warm relationship" with the law lord.

"I shall be having a proper, sensible, intelligent, rational chat with him today.

"I shall say: 'Look, we may disagree about life meaning life, but we don't disagree that the objective is to keep people out of prison by reducing reoffending, not filling our jails with more and more people who didn't ought to be there'."

Turnaround?

Mr Blunkett accepted that if the "most heinous criminals" were kept inside for longer, the jails at that end of the spectrum would be fuller.

But measures such as detaining people for weekends and evenings so they could continue working, and tougher community sentences "will make a difference, not just to the numbers, but to the effectiveness".

Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said the Conservatives had for some months argued for a more locally accountable system to get police back on to the streets.

"If the home secretary is a convert to that then I am entirely delighted," he said.

Simon Hughes, the Lib Dems home affairs spokesman, said it was "extraordinary" that "the most centralising home secretary in living memory is now preaching about local accountability".




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"These are radical plans"



SEE ALSO:
Licence for local mavericks?
11 Jun 03  |  Politics
2002 crime figures: At a glance
11 Jul 02  |  UK News
Crime falls by 9% in 2002
04 Apr 03  |  UK
Chat room paedophile jailed
07 Jun 03  |  England
Judging the judges
06 Apr 01  |  UK News


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