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Sentence reviews

Nick Robinson | 13:23 UK time, Monday, 10 July 2006

Well, the home secretary does not believe he needs to mind his language. I'm told that he still believes that the sentence given to Craig Sweeney - the paedophile who kidnapped and sexually assaulted a young girl - was too lenient. This despite the fact that the attorney general will announce this afternoon that he will not be asking the Court of Appeal to review the sentence.

The attorney is not referring the case because he believes he'd lose. Both he and John Reid want to stop automatic sentence discounts for those, like Sweeney, who are are "caught red-handed". The attorney's already lost an appeal on this very issue. So, attention now turns to the Sentencing Guidelines Council who are looking at the issue.

That still leaves the question of whether the original sentence (before the discount for the guilty plea and before parole consideration) was long enough. The home secretary thinks not. It was 18 years and could have been 24. The attorney general either doesn't agree or feels that he wouldn't succeed in getting this over turned in the Court of Appeal.

Next week we should learn how the government believes it can "re-balance" the criminal justice system to avoid this sort of row in future.


Just a reminder...

Although Sweeney could be in prison for life, his sentence means that he will be considered for parole after five years. The judge said the tariff for his crimes was 18 years. This was reduced by a third for a guilty plea - making 12. Parole is then considered after half the remaining sentence is served - leaving six years. Sweeney had already served some time on remand - hence the minimum sentence of 5 years.


  • 1.
  • At 01:55 PM on 10 Jul 2006,
  • John, Devon wrote:


Isn't the problem that this is entirely a controversy of the Government's making: they passed the laws, set up the Sentencing Guidelines Council, introduced the discount for a guilty plea, etc.

John Reid's naked populism over lenient sentences is therefore even more misplaced than the usual New Labour sucking up to the Daily Mail and Sun. Although they can't really blame anyone but themselves, they criticise the judges in order to divert attention from their own incompetence.

  • 2.
  • At 04:27 PM on 10 Jul 2006,
  • Andy wrote:


Following my post on "Governing by Soundbite" I feel urged to write again!

I totally agree with John (post 1) about the situation. It seriously frustrates me that issues like this are dealt with by pandering to popular opinion, spin and headline grabbing statements.

I am not naive enough to believe that everyone will agree with the conclusions that are finally reached. However, surely our elected officials have the duty to enter into intellectual debate about these situations. These are MASSIVELY important issues that effect people in a very real way and therefore deserve so much more than the soundbites and "tabloid" treatment that they get.

Will this ever happen, or am I living in a utopian world?!

One final thought: There’s actually one person who could do this and raise the level and standard of public debate about these serious issues … he’s a lame duck, won’t be running for re-election, can’t be easily got rid of and is right at the top of government – unfortunately he also brought spin to the masses!

  • 3.
  • At 05:36 PM on 10 Jul 2006,
  • elizabeth wrote:

As a practising barrister (albeit not a criminal one any longer)I can't but help smile at the mess that this meddling government have got themselves in. All the problems they are now trying to fix have been caused by their handcuffing of the judges. Sentencing is now really no longer a matter of discretion for the judge.

Further the rebalancing of the criminal justice system really means nothing. Anything that is prosecuted is not being done properly any more. There is massive undercharing of offences to secure any admission. Anti social behaviour for exampleused to be prosecuted all the time with offences such as breach of the peace/affray/violent disorder. Now instead of the police or rather the CPS doing the job Joe public must go and get a useless ASBO. I do not blame the police decisions about prosecutions are in hands of the CPS who have no will or ability to prosecute crime. God help us all. Take a trip to your local courts to see how bad the system is. Remember also what is see in the courts does not include all the cautions and fixed penalty notices handed out and ignored by offenders.

I seem to recall that the trial judge gave sentence with no enthusiasm for its length, or rather lack of it, but he had been forced to tick a few boxes and move on.

perhaps this government can stop box ticking exercises.

  • 5.
  • At 06:14 PM on 10 Jul 2006,
  • Nick Jay wrote:

Agaon, the right-wing media are not being challenged. This does not mean that he will be out in five years. Even if he comes up for a parole interview after that time, so did many of the criminal monsters of the past. Does anybody seriously believe it will be granted! This is just another media attempt to sensationalise the news - the BBC which used to represent balance is now ine of the leading sources of tabloid, shock-horror journalism. The one voice of moderation has gone!

  • 6.
  • At 06:33 PM on 10 Jul 2006,
  • James wrote:


I cannot agree with the first two posts' scoffing at Mr. Reid. It is obvious that the sentence in this case given was far too lenient, and Mr. Reid was sensible enough to say so, despite whatever allegations of 'pandering to popular opinion' might be made against him.

But what is really needed is a total reform of the justice system in this country - at present it is no more than a joke, but one that really isn't very funny. The ridiculous leniency and the overwhelming level of care and attention given to criminals, at public expense, is a terrible reflection of how the British justice system is consistently failing to deliver justice.

The problem with crime does not lie with the police or the judiciary - it lies with the legislators who masterminded the preposterous sentencing guidelines now in place - I'm no supporter of New Labour, but perhaps if there were a few more John Reids the country would be a better place.

Lord Goldsmith is right to alert the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which must, for the sake of law-abiding citizens, dramatically overhaul the current mess and increase the lengths of sentences across the board. With prisons now looking more like 5-star hotels, it is time to crack down on the ever better-treated criminals who are literally getting away with murder.

  • 7.
  • At 09:48 PM on 10 Jul 2006,
  • neil wrote:

Its probably inconceivable that judges might be allowed earn their substantial salaries by using their judgement.

With guidelines abolished, the public (and justice) might be better served by the common sense, intelligence and life long experience of what are, in the main, men and women at the top of their careers.

Ministers would then be in a position to sack judges who made seriously bad decisions instead of blaming them for correctly interpreting guidelines of government making.

  • 8.
  • At 11:30 PM on 10 Jul 2006,
  • Bernard from Horsham wrote:

It is so absolutely typical of New Labour, who have been in power for 10 yrs,introduced all sorts of draconian laws, and when they find out the sentencing guidelines that they have laid down for judges don't work, they cry foul and blame the judiciary.
It stinks, New Labour is continually incompetent, and uses every excuse under the sun to blame someone else.
As I say it STINKS>

I was a victim of a man like this. I survived.

I thought I'd see what the Great British public and the worl thought would be a just punishment for Mr Sweeny, the answers speak for themselves.

There seems more political point scoring on this sentence than actually looking at the core issues. The 5 years figure is just a technicality. Are we to believe, in a case a serious as this, that the professionals who will judge that parole will stupidly say “Five years are up, your crime wasn’t that serious, you are not a menace to society, you can go home now.”? And if that was the case would the debate be better centred on that aspect?
All the public are looking for is to be safe, why can’t our politicians deliver that by looking to the actual issues instead of muddying the waters with political manoeuvring and spin?

  • 11.
  • At 10:49 AM on 11 Jul 2006,
  • chris wrote:

when are you going to start exposing this government for what it is - instead of acting as an unpaid spin doctor ?

is this a condition of receiving your exclusive leaks for the 10 o'clock news ?

shape up or ship out !

  • 12.
  • At 11:07 AM on 11 Jul 2006,
  • John, Devon wrote:

James accuses me of scoffing at Mr Reid. OK, that's a matter of opinion. But he also says the sentence was "far to lenient".

The sentence was LIFE INPRISONMENT. How is that lenient?

And as other corresponents have noted, allowing a review after 5 years doesn't mean he'll be let out then - in fact, it's most unlikely that he'll get parole for many years after that.

  • 13.
  • At 11:11 AM on 11 Jul 2006,
  • John Brewer wrote:

Every time the government says ANYTHING about this story every single journalist must say 'These are your rules. Your administration made them. If you don't like them say “we made a mistake. We’re sorry. We going to change it.’” It is so very clear and simple. There is NO debate. It is NOTHING to do with the judges. They are FOLLOWING the RULES. What on earth is wrong with journalists? Thank goodness for the blogs!

  • 14.
  • At 11:58 AM on 11 Jul 2006,
  • Andy wrote:

James (post 6) seems to be missing the point that I was trying (obviously unsuccessfully) to make! It’s not that John Reid shouldn’t comment, but it’s the way in which he commented that is unhelpful. Using an individual case in this way is precisely the wrong thing to do because it diverts attention from the real issue.

I agree with James on his main point - of course the whole Criminal Justice System needs reforming, it’s a state! However, you create good reform through educated debate and listening to many viewpoints NOT by making statements that are designed purely to pander and grab a few column inches of good news for the Labour party.

If John Reid truly wants to improve things - and I like to believe he does - then he should say: "The system's a mess and we have contributed a great deal to this mess. I'm not going to sensationalise an individual case but it proves that we need to make sweeping changes to the system. Here’s my plan and timetable on how we’re going to start to resolve the problem…”

In my opinion - and I accept there are other viewpoints - that is how to respond in a way that sets the wheels in motion for an intellectual debate on these serious issues. The problem with this approach is that you don’t gain any “tough on crime” headlines.

  • 15.
  • At 01:20 PM on 11 Jul 2006,
  • elizabeth wrote:

I have had a number of off the record discussions with judges and they are in dispair about the parole board. It used to be a very serious body but now is run on a shoe string. Sometimes meetings by telephone. It is tokenism thats all. Lets have some proper investigative journalism about this issue.

In truth its all about shipping them in and then out as quickly as you can. Look at all the Home Office policy coming out-its about criminals living in the community- they don't believe in prison. More and more laws being passed- less and less time served.

  • 16.
  • At 02:47 PM on 11 Jul 2006,
  • D MOORE wrote:

NICK I cannot believe that Mr
Cameron is being serious, the 'hoodies' do not come in sigleton,s, they come at you mob
handed, one their own, they are
rubbish, but when backing each other,
they are really dengerous, as events
have sadly proved, in this area they
are a fact of life. DC should think
before making statements on the
hoof. BE LUCKY

  • 17.
  • At 09:44 PM on 12 Jul 2006,
  • SJL wrote:

The point has been made a couple of times that of course, even though this man will be eligible for parole in five years, no parole board of any worth would dream of letting him out. If he hasn't a hope of success, then why is parole offered at this stage? The implication, as I see it, is that, unlikely as it may seem, the offender could potentially reform himself during this period, and should therefore have a right to be free after five years if he is successful. Even if he did emerge as a 'new man', would anyone feel that he had paid his debt to society? Maybe this opens up a new can of worms about the function of prison, but whilst there remains even the slimmest chance that this man could be freed in just five years, then I believe that parole is being offered too early.

What do you expect? There is no bilateral agreement with the USA courts and the UK courts to get some one to the soils of the USA by a whistle or, “Hey you come here, you are wanted.” This is a disgrace of the highest level and I think I hear the TVs state that the House of Lords will redraft the constitution or part of this on Thursday that is today. Wonder they are still sleeping while the British called to USA sweat out on their own?

  • 19.
  • At 08:26 AM on 13 Jul 2006,
  • Colin Bland wrote:

Contrast the sentence of this paedophile with those handed out in Spain to two murderers - they will never be let out. Let life sentences be life sentences and stop all the fiddling about. If Spain can do it, Britain can do it, regardless of the Human Rights legislation. And, on that subject, surely it's possible to amend that ridiculous Act so that it does not apply to anyone convicted of a serious crime?

  • 20.
  • At 03:38 PM on 27 Jul 2006,
  • John wrote:

The Beckett thing sounds like a "spat" of the type "ASK FIRST". Mind you, the ONLY people being "asked" are HMG. And, of course, by using HMS Britain" as a staging post for "below the table" stuff like ordnance and extraordinary renditions, UK is being further embroiled in "the activities". Iran and other middle east countries have often "hinted" that they are none too fond of "infidels" USA and UK.
Putting out a fire with petrol never was a good idea.

At the "news conference duet" with "Blush", or do i mean Blair and Blush, or any other such word play, how many of us cringed, i wonder, when Bush said to Blair something to the effect of "can I buy you dinner ?"
All that was missing, in old money, was the word "dear".

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