You know a general election is in the offing when the main political parties start competing on which of them can be the “toughest on crime”. Yesterday’s King’s Speech (the first from Risk Sunak as Prime Minister) contained a long list of hardline criminal justice measures committing the Government to introduce tougher sentences for rapists and murderers.
Before we look at the content of the speech, let’s take a look at the criminal justice context in which these new changes are set.
Long term prisoners
The last 20 years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people serving long prison sentences. There is no official definition of how long a person needs to spend in prison to be classed as a ‘longterm’ prisoner, but the general understanding is that this term applies to anyone who spends 10 years or more in custody. This includes people serving indeterminate sentences, such as a Life sentence and the sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP); as well as those sentenced to a determinate sentence of 20 years or more. Most people currently in prison serving a determinate sentence will spend half of their sentence in custody, and the rest in the community under licence, as set out in the 2003 Criminal Justice Act.
If a person breaches the terms of their licence, then they may be recalled back to custody. A person sentenced to a 20-year prison sentence would expect to spend 10 years in custody, and a further 10 in the community under licence conditions.
There are a number of exceptions to this. The government has introduced a number of changes meaning that people who have committed certain violent, sexual or terrorist offences serve a greater proportion of their sentences inside.
The latest data (all facts and figures taken from the most recent Prison Reform Trust, Bromley Briefing – the accepted go-to resource for everyone interested in penal affairs) show that at the end of 2022, 7,951 people were currently in prison serving a life sentence. Of those, 7,150 were yet to be released—the remaining 801 people were back in prison having been recalled from licence. Of those 7,150 people yet to be released, one in six (15%) had a tariff of 10 years or less, almost half (48%) over 10 years and up to 20 years, and a third (34%) have over 20 years.
More than one in five people in prison on a life sentence (22%) had already served their minimum term. They had spent an average of 9.2 extra years in prison.
People serving mandatory life sentences for murder are already spending more of their sentence in prison. On average they spend 18 years in custody, up from 13 years in 2001. Judges are also imposing longer minimum terms. The average minimum term imposed for murder rose from 13 years in 2000 to 21 years in 2021.
To put all these facts and figures in some sort of context; England and Wales have more people serving life sentences than Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, and Sweden combined—the highest in Europe by a significant margin.
The new measures
The King’s Speech confirmed the (much-trailed) introduction of a new sentencing bill with an emphasis on increasing further the length of prison sentences for those committing the most serious violent offences. The details include:
- Courts will be required to impose a Whole Life Order in cases for which a Whole Life Order is currently the starting point, and murder with sexual or sadistic conduct, unless there are exceptional circumstances.
- Rapists, and those convicted of the most serious sexual offences, who receive a determinate sentence (i.e. not life) will serve every day of their custodial term behind bars.
Interestingly, the King’s Speech also contains what some would say are contradictory measures – introducing a presumption against prison sentences for less than 12 months, primarily to tackle our prison overcrowding problem and extending Home Detention Curfews to “suitable” offenders serving four years or more.
A new Criminal Justice Bill also has some new powers for probation officers, enabling them to:
- use polygraph tests on serious terrorist or sexual offenders to better manage their risk; and
- increase the multi-agency management requirements on offenders convicted of coercive or controlling behaviour.
This Bill also contains the controversial provision to send people to other countries to serve their prison sentence by:
“establishing powers to transfer prisoners in and out of England and Wales to serve their sentence abroad”.
Whether this (to me outlandish) policy initiative survives the parliamentary process and makes it into law is probably a moot point so close to a general election.
Further “tough on crime” measures are included in the Victims and Prisoners Bill which, again controversially,
“ensures that Ministers have greater oversight of the release of the most dangerous offenders, including murderers, rapists and terrorists.”
The decision to allow political control of the legal process is most apparent in the following provision:
“create a new “top-tier” of offenders convicted of the most serious offences (murder, rape, the most serious terrorism offences, or causing or allowing the death of a child) whose release may be subject to personal intervention by ministers so that there is a second check, on behalf of the public, on whether the prisoner is safe to release.”
From political events over the last few months, it seems clear that criminal justice will be a key battleground in the forthcoming election campaign with both leading parties proposing more and more draconian laws to appear the toughest on crime.