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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 May, 2003, 07:14 GMT 08:14 UK
How murderers' jail sentences are set
Inside a prison
Under new rules, judges would follow parliamentary guidelines

Under planned new legislation, judges will have the final say on how long murderers should spend in prison, according to guidelines set down by Parliament.

This changes the current rules under which the home secretary has the final decision on the minimum term murderers must serve.

Under existing rules, courts must by law sentence all convicted murderers to life, with the judge then recommending a minimum term the prisoner should serve.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the home secretary then actually sets the minimum time, or "tariff", that the murderer must spend in prison.

This means the minimum term recommended by the court can actually be increased by the home secretary.

Legal challenges

And after the minimum term has been served, the home secretary can also then decide whether to release the prisoner, depending on what the parole board recommends, or keep them in prison.

For the 'worst' murders such as child killings, life means life
Other murders such as police killings, to have 30-year minimum
All murders to have 15-year minimum

This tariff-setting system came into effect in 1983.

But the role of politicians in setting prison terms has been challenged in both the UK and European courts in recent years.

Last year, for instance, judges in Strasbourg ruled that former home secretary Jack Straw breached the human rights of convicted murderer Dennis Stafford by keeping him in jail longer than recommended by the Parole Board.

And in the same year the House of Lords said the home secretary had breached the human rights of murderer Anthony Anderson, by increasing his minimum term to 20 years, from the 15 recommended by the trial judge.

Under EU law, a convicted person has a right to have a sentence imposed by an "independent and impartial" tribunal.

15 year average

Under planned new rules, judges will make all sentencing decisions - but only within a framework to be decided by Parliament.

When capital punishment was abolished, it was intended that a strong, rigorous alternative needed to be introduced and strictly maintained
Home Secretary David Blunkett

Parliament will draw up a "grid" under which a particular kind of murder will automatically attract a particular type of sentence.

Home Secretary David Blunkett has suggested much longer terms under the new rules than the average 15 years behind bars currently served for murder.

They are also longer than the minimum guidelines set down by Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf last year - which gave a 16-year minimum for the worst murders; 12 years for "normal" murders and eight or nine years for those with mitigating circumstances.

Mr Blunkett suggested the "worst" murderers - those who killed children, for instance - would actually have to stay in prison for the rest of their lives.

For other serious crimes, such as the murder of a police or prison officer in the course of duty, or racially motivated murder, a minimum of 30 years would be served.

Capital punishment

Any other murders will have a 15 year starting point, which judges can increase if they wish.

If they set lower terms, they will have to explain why they have done so in open court.

For the most serious crimes, such as the sexual, sadistic murder of children, or terrorist murder, life should mean life, as opposed to current practice of a 20 year minimum term
David Blunkett

"When capital punishment was abolished, it was intended that a strong, rigorous alternative needed to be introduced and strictly maintained," said Mr Blunkett.

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

The law in Scotland has already been changed so that Scottish ministers no longer have a say in sentencing.

Life to mean life for worst crimes
07 May 03  |  Politics
Q&A: Blunkett explains plans
07 May 03  |  Politics

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