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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 May, 2003, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
Sentencing reform raises legal worries
Life would mean life for the worst crimes

Reforms of the legal system which would allow Parliament to set minimum terms for murder have raised concerns among lawyers and civil liberties campaigners.

Home Secretary David Blunkett wants to introduce tough new jail sentences for murderers in England and Wales, which will be laid down by Parliament as a guide for judges.

The rules, which will form "principles" in the Criminal Justice Bill currently going through Parliament, include the provision that anyone who abducts and murders a child should never be released from prison.

Although the move has been supported by shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin and groups which help the victims of crime, some parts of the legal profession are opposed to it.

'Political aspect'

Criminal lawyer Allan Levy QC said however terrible the crime it was important to be able to review a sentence over the years.

"I don't think anybody can point to any obvious failings in the system," he said.

Mr Levy said the move appeared to have a "political aspect" to it.

Sentences should not be determined by politicians who do not know the specifics of the case and may be more interested in securing good headlines than in securing good justice
Mark Littlewood

He said: "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."

A spokesman for the Bar Council said the plans were "constitutionally a leap in the dark".

He said: "It looks politically smart when you hear of one or two bad cases, but I think politicians are storing up trouble for themselves."

He added that David Blunkett was trying to "institutionalise the grip of the executive around the neck of the judiciary".

The spokesman argued: "That is not healthy for the long-term constitutional arrangements of the country."

'Bursting' prisons

Mark Littlewood, campaigns director of the civil liberties and human rights organisation Liberty, said he was concerned by the idea of politicians becoming more involved in the justice system.

"Longer prison sentences may help the home secretary appear tough but they will do nothing to reduce crime," he said.

If the judges gave proper sentencing, then yes, leave it to the judges, but they don't, they give 10, 12, 14 years
Jill Smith
mother of murder victim

"Our prisons, which are already full to bursting, will become still more crowded."

Mr Littlewood said the appropriate sentence for any crime needed to be set by a judge, "on the basis of all the facts of the particular case".

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of probation union Napo, said the proposals suggested there could never be room for redemption.

"Each case and release date must remain with the parole authorities to reflect remorse, change in the offender and the risk they may pose," he said.

"There is a case for different maximums in order to differentiate between different premeditated murders. But discretion must rest with judges to reflect the circumstances."


However, the changes were welcomed by Jill Smith, mother of Louise Smith, who was raped and murdered in December 1995 aged 18.

David Frost, 22, was convicted of her murder three years later and, due to his age at the time of the killing and the remorse he expressed in court, he was given life sentence set at a minimum of 14 years.

Mrs Smith told the BBC: "He will be 36 when he comes out - 14 years, to me, is a very short time.

"Especially when you see someone who tries to steal a diamond from the Dome get 25 years - they're telling me a diamond is worth more than my daughter's life.

"He should spend the rest of his life in there.

"Every victim up and down the country will be pleased with Blunkett today."

Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, said the criminal justice system was "in crisis" and violent crime and gun crime were out of control.

"We need to send out a strong message to the criminal fraternity that enough is enough," he said.

Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin agreed that Parliament should set the framework, which did not seem unduly harsh.

"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," he said.

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