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Last Updated: Friday, 21 July 2006, 09:28 GMT 10:28 UK
Life prisoners lose parole rights
Prison bars
An extra 8,000 prison places are being planned
The most dangerous criminals will lose their automatic right to be considered for parole halfway through life sentences under new plans.

Home Secretary John Reid has unveiled how he wants to overhaul the criminal justice system after a spate of controversies over sentencing.

He pledged 8,000 extra prison places, but human rights laws would not change.

The Tories broadly welcomed the plans but said ministers had failed to deliver more prison places in the past.

The Liberal Democrats said that instead of building new prisons, more emphasis should be placed on cutting re-offending rates.

Mr Reid's plans are likely to mean offenders who plead guilty no longer have their sentences cut by a third.

The plans come as new crime figures for England and Wales show robberies rose 8% last year, although crime overall was "stable".

Sweeney case

Judges and the court system have come under fire from crime victims and the media in recent months in a string of sentencing rows.

Automatic right to ask for parole half way through life sentences expected to end
Maximum jail sentence for knife possession to rise from two to four years
One third discounts for guilty pleas under review
Parole Boards to have to agree unanimously before releasing people
Swifter return to custody for people breaking bail conditions
8,000 new prison places

Mr Reid himself complained that paedophile Craig Sweeney had been given an unduly lenient sentence when he was told he could apply for parole five years into his life term.

Announcing the plans, Mr Reid said: "Too often it appears that the criminal justice system is on the side of offenders, protecting their interest and individual rights rather than those of the victims and law-abiding majority.

"That has to change."

Sentencing changes

The home secretary said he was scrapping rules which meant serious criminals serving life sentences can apply for parole at the half way point.

And he was stopping the automatic one-third discounts for people who pleaded guilty only after being caught "red-handed".

In another change, no prisoners will be freed early unless their Parole Board agrees unanimously.

Victims' views will also be heard by the boards in sexual and violent cases.

And people who break the conditions of their licence after being released or break bail conditions would be returned to prison faster, said Mr Reid.

Other changes he announced include:

  • Maximum sentence for knife possession to rise from two to four years

  • Rules changed so there is a presumption against bail where people have absconded while on bail

  • New summary powers to close down shops which sell knives and spray cans to under-age children.

Mr Reid said he was planning an extra 8,000 prison places to deal with overcrowding.

Crime figures in England and Wales

The home secretary said he wanted to concentrate the system on serious offenders by making more foreign criminals serve their sentences in their home country.

He also planned to cut the number of vulnerable women and mentally ill people in prisons, and tag those on bail for less serious crimes.

For the Conservatives, shadow home secretary David Davis welcomed much of the proposals but said the government had consistently failed to provide extra prison places.

He warned that the latest moves could make overcrowding worse, especially as Mr Reid did not seem to know how to relieve the pressure on cells.

Stability plea

Liberal Democrat spokesman Nick Clegg criticised the plans for new prisons.

"We will only secure a manageable prison population if we take a bolder approach to tackling reoffending, with non-custodial public punishment sentences and proper mental health treatment," he said.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of probation union Napo, said removing discounts for guilty pleas could result in more expensive jury trials.

"The system does not need yet more legislative changes, it needs a period of stability," said Mr Fletcher.

But Ken Jones, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said tough sentences could deter criminals.

The plans come against the backdrop of the latest crime figures.

A rise in young people carrying mobile phones and MP3 players is being blamed for the sharp rise in street robberies and muggings, which includes a 10% rise in gunpoint robberies.

But ministers welcomed a 7% fall in recorded house burglaries, a 3% drop in vehicle theft and a 12% decrease in the number of homicides.

Total recorded crime fell by 1% to 5,556,513 offences, although the separate British Crime Survey suggested the total was up 1%.

One woman gives her reaction

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