Tuesday, June 21, 2011

David Cameron makes prison U-turn to increase jail sentences

Hélène Mulholland | The Guardian |  21 June 2011 
PM's speech reveals plan to abandon 50% discounts for early guilty pleas and to increase terms for serious offenders
David Cameron has outlined plans to hand out a greater number of life sentences and increase the amount of time serious offenders spend in prison, in a major policy U-turn.
The prime minister outlined his tough approach to sentencing as he confirmed his decision to abandon plans to offer 50% sentence discounts to offenders who submit early guilty pleas amid media tabloid accusations that the government was engaging in "soft justice".
Cameron told a press conference that dangerous criminals will be locked up "for a very long time" as described his mission to ensure families can "feel safe in their homes" and on the streets.
Sentences would have been too lenient and criminals would have been sent the "wrong message" if plans to halve jail terms for offenders who plead guilty early had gone ahead, he told a press conference.
Savings of some £100m that would have been made through the plans will now be sought instead through "greater efficiency" elsewhere in justice secretary Kenneth Clarke's department.
The prime minister also denied that the U-turn was a sign of weak government, insisting that the ability to reconsider policy following a consultation displayed "strength" and leadership.
Talking of his decision to scrap the plans to offer 50% sentence discounts, Cameron said: "The sentence served would depart far too much from the sentence handed down by the judge, and this is simply not acceptable. The sentence would be too lenient, the wrong message would be sent out to the criminal and it would erode public confidence in the system."
In a notable shift from the original sentencing plans, Cameron said the government would look at keeping serious criminals in prison longer as part of a review of indeterminate jail sentences. It was a "tough" new approach.
"We're going to review the existing system urgently with a view to replacing it with an alternative that is clear, tough and better understood by the public," said Cameron.
This alternative system would include a "greater number of life sentences, including mandatory life sentences for the most serious repeat offenders", he said.
"Instead of serious, sexual and violent offenders being released halfway through their sentence, we propose they should spend at least two-thirds of that sentence in prison, and that such offenders should never again be released early without the parole board being satisfied that it is safe to let this happen."
Dangerous offenders should also take part in compulsory programmes behind bars to make them change their behaviour, the premier said. Legislation is expected in the autumn.
"The public need to know that dangerous criminals will be locked up for a very long time. I'm determined that they will be."
Despite announcing the latest in a series of policy U-turns, Cameron insisted his government was "extremely strong, resolute and determined" and that abandoning the 50% discounts was a sign of "strength and confidence" that the coalition was prepared to listen and change its mind.
The "weak thing to do" was to keep "ploughing on" when consultations on reform indicated there were better ways of doing things.
"The tough, strong thing to do is to say 'yes, we can make these plans better'," he said, adding that that was what the government had done on both sentencing and the NHS.
"I don't for one minute think that somehow it is weak to listen and then to act, it is a sign of strength and confidence."
Cameron also faced down calls to sack his justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, whom he described as "an extremely effective minister" with a "hugely difficult job to do".
Clarke was robust and prepared enough to listen to what other people had said and come up "with something better", he said.

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