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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 May, 2003, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Life to mean life for worst crimes
Prisoner in a jail cell
If Criminal Justice Bill is passed murderers will spend life in jail

Life will mean life for the most serious crimes, the home secretary has announced.

David Blunkett said the new rules mean punishments for murderers will better fit the crime.

"When capital punishment was abolished, it was intended that a strong, rigorous alternative needed to be introduced and strictly maintained," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"I am determined to ensure we have modern arrangements which maintain that commitment."

Premeditated multiple murder with abduction, sadistic or sexual motives
Murder of child following abduction or sexual or sadistic conduct
Terrorist murder
Previous conviction for murder

Under new rules, Parliament will be able to lay down guiding principles for judges in England and Wales to determine how long an offender should spend in prison before being considered for release on licence.

The rules - laid out in the Criminal Justice Bill currently going through Parliament - include the principle that anyone who abducts and murders a child should never be released from prison.

Whole-life terms will also be imposed for terrorist murder or multiple murders which are premeditated, sexual or sadistic.

Murder of police or prison officer
Murder involving gun or explosive
Killing done for gain e.g. burglary, robbery
Killing a witness
Single sadistic or sexual murder
Multiple murders

Officials say the aim is to provide "clarity, consistency and confidence" in the sentencing of murderers while making sure that Parliament retains a key role.

But the plans have come in for criticism from some members of the judiciary who have questioned the right of a politician to take decisions in private over sentencing, leaving prisoners little right of appeal.

And a spokesman for civil rights group Liberty said judges having heard the evidence in individual cases were best placed to decide on sentence.

"When you start getting politicians involved in the whole judicial process you start to get justice by focus group, justice by tabloid headline and I think that's no justice at all," he said.

'Clarity and consistency'

In November the Law Lords ruled that the home secretary's power to increase the minimum sentence handed down to convicted murderers was "incompatible" with human rights laws.

Mr Blunkett's decision to lay down the sentencing framework is being seen in some quarters as an attempt to reassert his power.

He said: "What I am doing is asking Parliament to lay down a framework in which life will mean life...

Bulger killers Robert Thompson, left, and Jon Venables

Jon Venables and Robert Thomson were 10 when they murdered James Bulger, two
Ordered to serve at least 15 years by home secretary
Tariff ruled illegal under EU law
Released on parole after eight years

"I think that people will cheer and say we want a framework where we have confidence, where we have clarity, where we have consistency."

Conservative home affairs spokesman Oliver Letwin said: "It is reasonable Parliament should take a view that the norm should be someone who has sadistically murdered a pile of children, they should spend their life behind bars."

For the Liberal Democrats Simon Hughes said: "It should be for Parliament to fix maximum sentences for all crimes, and for the courts to make sure the particular punishment fits the individual crime."

The sentencing of child killers came under scrutiny during the Jamie Bulger murder trial.

Jon Venables and Robert Thomson, who were 10 years old when they abducted and murdered the two-year-old, were released on parole after eight years.

It's rather pandering to people's basic feelings whereas it is very, very important in these cases that it is dealt with dispassionately and objectively
Allan Levy QC

Under the new principles, judges will have discretion over giving lighter sentences but they must say why in open court and the attorney general will be able to challenge sentences which "appear too lenient".

The crimes covered by the life minimum and 30-year minimum are listed in the table above.

In addition:

  • Any other murders will have a 15-year starting point on which judges can build as necessary to ensure the appropriate sentence
  • People aged 17 years or under shall be subject to the 15-year starting point only
  • And offenders who are 18, 19 or 20 years of age will be subject to either the 15 or 30 year starting points.

Blunkett has no legal or psychological training, and may be acting contrary to the rule of law
Nick Bannister, UK

The proposals will not alter the existing automatic life sentence for a murder conviction.

They affect the minimum term to be served before the killer can be considered for parole.

Under existing arrangements, the home secretary sets the minimum term, or tariff, and decides whether to release the prisoner on the recommendation of the Parole Board.

The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"His plans have put him on a collision course with judges and lawyers"

Q&A: Sentences for murder
07 May 03  |  UK
Raising killers' hopes of freedom
25 Nov 02  |  UK News

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