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New life sentence a 'politician's answer' to a legal problem

Lawyers warn of rise in prison population

1 November 2011

Ken Clarke’s plan to cut the prison population could be scuppered by his announcement that the government intends to introduce a new mandatory life sentence for a second ‘very serious sexual or violent’ offence, lawyers warn.

In a further move the government said an ‘extended determinate sentence’ (EDS) would be introduced for ‘all dangerous criminals convicted of serious sexual and violent crimes’. Prisoners under an EDS must serve at least two thirds of their sentence.

Roger Smith, director of JUSTICE, described mandatory sentences as a “nightmare”.

He went on: “I think Ken Clarke, like most lawyers who understand how the system works, resisted this. He is on record as saying he is against mandatory sentences.

“These offences are very serious, but every so often a case will arise where, on the facts, this will be unfair. There may some incident, for example, where an innocent kid is threatened by a gang of thugs and carries a knife to defend himself.

“This is a politician’s answer to a legal problem, not a lawyer’s answer.

“Clarke is caught between a rock and a hard place. His department is expected to produce 26 per cent cuts and prisons are the main source of expenditure. He could cut almost the whole of legal aid and it wouldn’t give him the savings he needs.”

Smith said the government could replace Clarke with Michael Howard and he would experience the same tensions between cutting expenditure and being tough on crime.

Desmond Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society, said the society had “long argued” against the mandatory life sentences, including in cases of murder.

Hudson said that while he agreed that IPPs were in need of fundamental reform, expanding the category of mandatory life sentences was not the way to do it.

“Both measures will erode the sentencing judge’s discretion to find the most appropriate penalty for both the offence and the offender,” Hudson said.

“Judges should be trusted to exercise their discretion when sentencing offenders, taking into account sentencing guidelines and the maximum penalty laid down by parliament.”

The prime minister announced in June that the government would review the previous government’s indefinite sentences for public protection (IPP) scheme.

“We intend to replace the widely criticised IPP system, which the public doesn’t have confidence in, with a new regime of tough, determinate sentences,” Clarke said last week. “Under our plans we expect more dangerous offenders to receive life sentences.

“The new regime will restore clarity, coherence and common sense to sentencing, rid us of the inconsistent and confusing IPP regime and give victims a clearer understanding of how long offenders will actually serve in prison.”

The government had already announced that adults convicted of the new offence of ‘aggravated knife possession’ would receive a mandatory six-month sentence.

Clarke said 16 and 17 year olds convicted of the same offence would face a mandatory four-month detention and training order.

He said there was a need to “send out a clear message about the seriousness of juvenile knife crime”. The new sentencing regime is contained in amendments to the legal aid bill.

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