Life sentences 'to be mandatory for more crimes'

Teenage boy holding a knife (posed by model) Currently, only those convicted of murder face a mandatory life term

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Mandatory life sentences will for the first time be extended to crimes other than murder under plans set out by Justice Secretary Ken Clarke.

Anyone convicted of a second serious sexual or violent crime in England and Wales would get an automatic life term.

A new offence for 16 and 17-year-olds of threatening with a knife would also carry a mandatory custodial term.

Labour's Sadiq Khan welcomed the knife measure but said other changes could see dangerous offenders freed.

Mr Clarke is proposing to scrap indeterminate sentences, introduced by Labour, which prevent offenders being freed until the parole board has ruled they no longer pose a danger to the public. Describing them as "failed", he said he wanted to bring in "more certain sentences".

"We've got 6,000 people languishing in prison, 3,000 of whom have gone beyond the tariff set by the judge, and we haven't the faintest idea when, if ever, they are going to get out," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.


Ask Ken Clarke whether he has changed his knife crime policy because of pressure from backbenchers and he does something rather odd for a politician. He agrees.

Point out his "two strikes" plan did not appear in the government's green paper on sentencing, and he cheerfully admits he only came up with the phrase as he drew up his latest press release.

So has this left-leaning Tory bruiser been floored by colleagues on the right and forced into a "tough on crime" package? Perhaps.

But he says most offenders who will get mandatory life sentences for two serious crimes would get the same treatment at judges' discretion under the existing system.

He has stuck with plans to scrap Labour's indeterminate sentencing policy.

And he is to consult on changes that could make it easier for prisoners already serving indeterminate sentences to get released.

The justice secretary knows he has to present a robust case to keep his colleagues and the public happy.

He also knows he has to cut costs, so cannot afford to keep too many people locked away.

We will need much more detail before we know whether this is as tough on criminals, and his budget, as Mr Clarke's spin doctors would have us believe.

"It's a gross injustice, a bit of a stain on our system."

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said the government should increase the number of prison places if the new sentencing policy resulted in more people being sent to jail.

Speaking on BBC One's Question Time programme, he said the government "has to allocate the resources" if there is a need for more places.

'Near murderous'

Meanwhile Mr Khan, the shadow justice secretary, said the plan "does not address the problem of unreformed offenders who have completed their sentence being released to commit crime and inflict harm on the public".

He added: "Under this government's plans, offenders who are a danger to the public could still be released from prison. They are taking an unnecessary risk with public safety."

Mr Clarke said the new automatic life sentences would apply to somebody who had committed two "probably near murderous attacks".

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) confirmed the changes would not apply retrospectively to current prisoners, but Mr Clarke told the BBC he would consult on rule changes that could make it easier for prisoners currently serving indeterminate sentences to be released.

Mr Clarke said the parole board "hardly ever releases anybody", adding: "The parole board ought to have a positive reason for wanting people to stay in rather than them having to prove it's safe to let them out."

Justice campaigners said they were concerned about the proposals, revealed a day after Mr Clarke told MPs that judges should have discretion over sentencing and said mandatory sentences were not the British way.

On Tuesday, Mr Clarke told MPs mandatory sentencing was "rather an American thing" and to have a situation in which, for example, a 13 was automatically imprisoned without a judge being able to use his discretion would "rather go against how we normally approach the sentencing of juveniles".

Asked whether he had changed his mind since then, Mr Clarke said he had not, although some people had tried to "carefully select little bits of what I said" to suggest a U-turn.

He said he remained "flatly against" the idea of mandatory jail terms for under 16s, but was creating the new offence for 16 and 17 year-olds which would result in automatic detention.

'Clear message'

Those convicted under the knife crime proposals, announced on Wednesday evening, would face four-month detention and training orders. Automatic jail terms are already planned for adults.

What is a life sentence?

  • For most life terms, judge sets minimum time offender must spend in jail before consideration for release on licence by parole board
  • Offender is also subject to certain conditions for life - just one of which is prison. Others could include a curfew, electronic tag or ban from a given area
  • If released on licence, offender is under supervision of probation service
  • Offenders stay under licence for life
  • If licence terms broken, offender is recalled to prison

Source: Ministry of Justice

"Clearly any extension of this sentence to children requires very careful consideration," said Mr Clarke. "However, we need to send out a clear message about the seriousness of juvenile knife crime."

MoJ figures suggest between 200 and 400 teenagers aged 16 and 17 could be jailed every year for using a weapon to threaten others.

Frances Crooke, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said she was "worried" about the proposals for mandatory life terms.

"We have nearly 12,000 life sentence prisoners - that's more than Russia, Poland, German and France all added together," she said.

"We are using the mandatory life sentence and discretionary life sentences like confetti already and it is causing huge problems in prisons."

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "Subject to good sentencing guidelines, what's wrong with allowing the courts to make sure that the sentence fits the crime?"

Meanwhile, Desmond Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society, which represents solicitors, warned that expanding mandatory life sentences to cover more offences was not the way to replace the indeterminate sentences.

"Both measures will erode the sentencing judge's discretion to find the most appropriate penalty," he said.

Further planned changes to the sentencing regime in courts include:

  • Extending the category of the most serious sexual and violent offences to include child sex offences, terrorism offences and "causing or allowing the death of a child" so that the new provisions will apply to them
  • The Extended Determinate Sentence (EDS) - all dangerous criminals convicted of serious sexual and violent crimes will be imprisoned for at least two-thirds of their sentence, ending the release of these offenders at the halfway stage
  • Offenders convicted of the most serious sexual and violent crimes in this category will not be released before the end of their sentence without parole board approval
  • Extended licence period - criminals who complete an EDS must then serve extended licence periods where they will be closely monitored and returned to prison if necessary
  • Courts have the power to give up to an extra five years of licence for violent offenders and eight years for sexual offenders on top of their prison sentence

The new measures will be debated in the House of Commons next week and, if passed, will be added to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which is currently going through Parliament.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 532.


    You do realise that without advances in human rights you would probably never have been able to read this report never mind post a poorly made argument about it. So screw the advancement of civilisation, as long as everyone you don't understand is locked away and you're happy. How do you know they are safer in prison? Source please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 531.

    @ Simple Simon
    ''I never cried that I wasnt given evrything, I went and got it.''

    That's what robbers do . If they're not given everything ... they take it. ;-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 530.

    @518 totally agree. My personal belief is that human rights are something you chose to partially forfeit when you break the law. If you commit a violent crime you should not be entitled to the same human rights as someone who has not committed a violent crime. Obviously a prisoner should still have a right to food, shelter and protection from physical harm, but it should stop there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 529.

    Whatever, i could have easily taken the moron route of "carrying a knife for protection" but i didnt. i could have even sold drugs but i dodnt. And there are countless times we have the opportunity to steal or even hurt someone. the only difference is that the civilised DONT. No, i'm not tempted by crime, millions arent - we know what would happen if we did. do you fancy prison?

  • rate this

    Comment number 528.

    re508 zin-
    the reason I don't go out and commit crimes is because I know right from wrong.The thought of harming or killing someone for some material gain never goes through my head when I covet the new iphone I need to SAVE for.Or the xbox I SAVED for.Nor have I ever felt the need to knife someone to be a part of the gang.

  • rate this

    Comment number 527.

    I think people should bear a few things in mind before supporting mandatory sentences.

    People facing mandatory sentences can end up losing their inhibition towards criminal behaviour because they know that the next time they are going to get sentenced, they are getting life anyway, so what's the difference in killing 1 person or 10?

  • rate this

    Comment number 526.

    Ho Good! you mean They get a month in prison, instead of two weeks at present. "I bet the criminals and god knows there's a lot of them, and half of them are illegals and shouldn't be here in the first place".... "I bet they are all shaking in their Social Security bought Boots".,

  • rate this

    Comment number 525.

    Can sanyone tell me what the Howard League for Penal Reform actually does?

    They complain about the UK having high custodial rates - well aren't they to blame for this as they have heavily influenced current policy?

    More liberalism isn't going to fix the problems caused by too much liberalism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 524.


    Fell for it.

    You still haven't explained to me why you don't commit crimes. Unless, and this is very worrying, fear of prison is literally the only thing that stop you picking up a knife and killing someone you don't like. What if you knew you could get away with it? Would you do it then? You really have no idea what you're talking about. Read more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 523.

    @ Simple Simon

    I'm sorry but that argument could only ever hold water if you had been tempted to commit a serious crime, and decided against it. What about the vast number of us that have never been tempted - the threat of prison hasn't deterred me, it's not even crossed my mind.

    How do you explain that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 522.

    If prison is not a deterrent then an alternative should be found to punish initially. Prison is there to protect the general public from idiots, so let's imprison those who are a definite threat and those who are habitual offenders. Wouldn't it be nice to have a community feel to your local shops and pub once more? Pity those who feel trapped within their own homes while criminals have liberty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 521.


    Thats a very sad case- but if the original offender was sentenced correctly - then there would have been no chance for your friend to retaliate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 520.

    # 506 Gordon, I would have thought it was obvious that I mean when a guilty verdict isn't in question. You probably read the last part and jumped on it, I do that a lot.

    # 505 Lewis Fitzroy, thank you for that! The recession hits everybody doesn't it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 519.

    1 Hour ago
    Life for murder. Life for rape. Life for serious sexual assault.
    And people are arguing against this, why?
    Because life isn't black and white and people change.
    I know a bloke in prison for stabbing the man convicted of molesting his son. I know a woman in prison for stabbing an abusive partner. Just a few examples, but probably many more like this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 518.

    And nearly all will get off crying human rights, But what about the rights of the rest of us.
    They have more safety in prison than us in the real world.
    Have they ever thought of bringing back the Birch? Oh I forgot it's against there Human Rights.

  • rate this

    Comment number 517.

    Some of the Arabic laws should be considered here. Would people still carry knives if the punishment was unpleasant and physical?

  • rate this

    Comment number 516.

    It does seem entirely ridiculous that there are career criminals with convictions in three figures still at liberty - often mulitple convictions for theft, burglary, car crime, assault. Is it really draconian to put 'em away for good - I don't think so. Rather than the unworkably expensive '3 strikes', we could start at '30 strikes and you're out' - and be rid of the worst.

  • rate this

    Comment number 515.

    Yes actually, I dont want to go to prison. I grew up poor with no father but sorted myself an education, job and home. I never cried that I wasnt given evrything, I went and got it.
    I never wanted to, and still dont want to, go to prison. I dont find that odd. I dont carry a weapon, never did, despite being mugged at knife point twice and growing up in newham.
    Excuses excuses excuses

  • rate this

    Comment number 514.

    490: Massive difference between a child dying in a car accident and being stabbed to death for a cheap mobile phone or some such. As for feeling better, not so, I don't feel better by seeing a young person going to jail for murder. I do feel just a little bit safer though...

  • rate this

    Comment number 513.

    For the past 50-60years we have been very liberal with criminals,short sentences,cut in half sentences,no death penality, and it has never worked and crime has just got worse over the years, especially when you get fed and paid when your prison,ps2,xbox,training courses for railway,chefs,brick laying etc etc then re-homed in nice new homes and flats when you come out.


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