The Justice Secretary has called for a “new approach” to sentencing as he set out plans for a £500 million shake-up of powers for courts, promising longer jail terms for serious offenders.
The Government’s Sentencing White Paper – which Robert Buckland said would result in a “fairer system” that better protects the public – also proposes 20-hour daily curfews for up to two years, community punishments and GPS tracking for burglars, robbers and thieves when they are released from prison.
During a speech on Wednesday for think tank the Centre for Social Justice, Mr Buckland said the public “rightly expects child killers to feel the fullest and harshest extent of the law”, as he set out plans for whole-life orders, including for 18-20-year-olds in exceptional cases.
Other serious adult offenders would be required to serve more of their term behind bars before they can be assessed for release, he pledged.
This could lead to around 2,400 prisoners serving longer jail terms by 2028 amid Government plans to create 10,000 more prison places.
The best estimate net cost of the changes is £542.6 million over 10 years, according to an impact assessment for the White Paper.
Speaking to the online audience, Mr Buckland said the White Paper is an “opportunity to grow trust and confidence in the sentencing system – in its ability to make the smart choices to protect the public from the harmful effects of crime, in whatever form they take”.
The announcement comes days after a parliamentary report warned prisons could run out of space to hold more criminals within the next three years, with some higher-risk inmates already having to be held in low-security jails.
Meanwhile courts in England and Wales are grappling with a backlog of more than half a million cases, with delays exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
At the same time, temporary laws are also being introduced to extend the custody time limit for people awaiting a trial for serious crimes.
The sentencing measures will also look at efforts to rehabilitate low-level criminals in a bid to reduce re-offending – like cutting the time before a conviction is classed as “spent” so they can find work and have flexible curfew rules around a job.
Custodial sentences of up to a year will become spent after a further 12 months without re-offending, instead of four years, while terms of one-to-four years will no longer be disclosed after four crime-free years – down from seven.
Sentences of more than four years will not automatically be disclosed to employers once a seven-year period of rehabilitation has been served, instead of for the rest of an offender’s life.
Mr Buckland told the webinar that sentencing failures perpetuate low-level offenders getting stuck in a life of crime and having little hope of turning things around.
He added: “Aside from the social impact, it is also a waste of money, with the cost of re-offending running into the billions every year.
“We need a new approach.”
The changes would “encourage courts to look at other alternatives to custody” like deferred sentences and try to prevent low-level and repeat offenders from “going back and forth to prison, for short custodial sentences that hold little rehabilitative value for them”, Mr Buckland said.
He also hailed the idea of having five “problem-solving” courts, pledging these would take a “completely new approach to dealing with low-level offending”.
But when later asked by reporters whether more deferred sentences could ultimately lead to offenders being excused for their crimes, Mr Buckland said the decision needed to be based on clear evidence, adding: “We have got to be careful about that.
“What we mustn’t do is create an artificial incentive that leads to false compliance.”
Mr Buckland said it is also time to make a “concerted effort” to address the approach to offenders with conditions like autism and dyslexia, adding: “We must never forget that to commit crime is to make a choice.
“There is, however, a sliding scale of increasing inevitability that we cannot ignore.”
Campbell Robb, chief executive of social justice charity Nacro which supports prisoners, said “senselessly banging people up for longer” would not create a criminal justice system “fit for the 21st century” and this would “only add more pressure to this already stretched system”.
While James Mulholland QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said a sentencing review “matters little when police-reported serious crime continues to rise; yet charging rates and prosecutions plummet and the tiny fraction of offences that do make it to court are left up to five years without being completed.
“A Government that concentrates on sentencing the back-end of justice, whilst failing to pay up and invest significantly more and swiftly into policing, CPS and courts, fails in its core duty to keep the public from harm.”
Labour’s shadow justice secretary David Lammy urged the Government not to apply tougher sentences “gratuitously” but said the party welcomed the reforms to “protect the British public”.