Page last updated at 03:38 GMT, Thursday, 15 May 2008 04:38 UK

Jail terms 'to reflect capacity'

Feltham young offenders institute
The government wants sentences to be set by independent body

Prison sentences would be set nationally by an independent body depending on the amount of space in jails, under government plans.

Proposals for a Sentencing Commission are in the draft Queen's Speech.

A Justice Ministry spokesman said it could lead to more community sentences - but there would not be shorter jail terms for serious offenders.

The Conservatives said sentences should always depend on the crime - not the size of the prison population.

The party refused to join a working group on the proposals, due to report next month with legislation to follow later in the year.

'Structured framework'

Shadow Justice Secretary Nick Herbert said: "We've already seen this government’s attempt to restrict the ability of courts to hand out custodial sentences because they have failed to provide enough prison places.

"Ministers cannot be allowed to contrive a new mechanism to prevent judges and magistrates from passing appropriate sentences."

But a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice denied the plans would restrict the independence of the judiciary, adding that the working group was chaired by a senior judge.

Having a national framework for sentencing would make it easier to predict the future size of the prison population and would not be constantly adjusted to reflect fluctuations in capacity, the government argues.

At the moment, it is not possible to accurately predict how judges and magistrates would react to changes in the law or the maximum sentence for a crime, a consultation document published in March said.

"A structured sentencing framework would make it possible to predict the likely impact of such legislation," it adds.

The new Sentencing Commission would be based on the system operating in several US states. Scotland also has an independent Sentencing Commission.

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