Outrage As Lord Chief Justice Says Life Sentences Are ‘Too Long’

The Lord Chief Justice declared yesterday that serious criminals are being sent to jail for too long. Lord Phillips said politicians and judges have been pushed into setting increasingly long sentences and called for more community punishments outside jail.

And he said future generations will see the whole life sentences handed down to the most atrocious killers as too harsh.

Lord Phillips, the most senior judge in England and Wales, spoke amid an outcry over the sentences handed down to the teenage killers of ten-year-old Damilola Taylor.

The Preddie brothers may be freed from jail in three years’ time.

Damilola’s father Richard said yesterday: “The Lord Chief Justice is wrong and he is out of touch with reality.”

But Lord Phillips compared the jail terms given to murderers with the cruel and barbarous punishments of past centuries.

In 100 years’ time, prison terms of 30 years or more will be seen as comparable to the ducking stool, the cat-o’-nine-tails or the hanging of children, he said.

Lord Phillips said he was worried about the increasing length of prison sentences handed down by the courts for serious crimes and added: “I am inclined to think that to be confined in prison for five years is a very weighty punishment indeed.”

The Lord Chief Justice’s condemnation of long sentences, delivered in a lecture in Oxford, came just two days after he permitted himself to be pictured carrying out a day’s work sampling community sentences and said it was “madness” to send criminals to jail when they were available.

Yesterday a Labour minister admitted such sentences do not work. Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman told MPs: “Nobody can say that unpaid work is working fantastically at the moment.

“Sometimes they will have got away with it but we are looking at that.”

But in his speech Lord Phillips gave his audience of lawyers and students a history lesson on the development of punishment.

In it he dwelled on the 18th century evils of whipping male and female criminals with the vicious cat-o’-nine-tails and throwing prostitutes into rivers with the ducking stool.

He condemned the way century judges hanged children for minor theft until the 19th century and referred to Judge Jeffreys, head of the notorious ‘Bloody Assizes’, who took sadistic pleasure in hanging hundreds of rebels against the Crown.

Many of these punishments, he said, “are today recognised as utterly barbaric.”

Now, Lord Phillips said: “Some murderers are being sentenced to a minimum of 30 years, or even full life terms.

“Lengths of sentence reflect, to a degree, public sentiment and, as chairman of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, I am in part responsible for them.

“But I sometimes wonder whether, in 100 years’ time, people will be as shocked by the length of sentences we are imposing as we are by some of the punishments of the 18th century.”

Few more than 20 murderers are thought to have been told to serve whole life terms. Among them are the most notorious killers, including Soham murderer Ian Huntley and the paedophile killer of Sarah Payne, Roy Whiting.

A typical murderer is now expected to serve a ‘tariff’ of 14 years in prison and can expect the term to be shortened if he pleads guilty.

Lord Phillips, however, said he had a “personal concern” over “the increasing length of sentences imposed for serious offences.”

He said: “If you have never experienced imprisonment it is very difficult to estimate the punitive effect of a month, or a year, or ten years deprived of one’s liberty in such an institution.

“Some elements of the media are inclined, however, to make light of sentences of imprisonment – to speak of defendants being permitted to ‘walk free’ after only five years inside.”

He said that this was “an incitement to the public to exact vengeance from offenders that is not dissimilar from the emotions of those who thronged to witness public executions in the 18th century.”

It could not, he said, fail to have an impact on the public, politicians and judges.

The Lord Chief Justice added that the causes of prison overcrowding were increasing deprivation in society and a growing willingness to send people to jail.

He called for more community sentences for those, including burglars and violent offenders, and said he wanted to see “general appreciation of the importance not merely of punishing criminals but of attacking the causes of their criminality.”

Mr Taylor, a 60-year-old civil servant whose son bled to death in a stairwell after being attacked in Peckham, South London, nearly six years ago, said: “How can the Lord Chief Justice talk about bringing down sentences for serious criminals?

“We have lost control of crime. There are people who feel free to carry out stabbings and killings and they are not worried about what they do to the victim or the families.

“People who do not face the threat of serious jail terms are not going to take account of the effects of what they do.”

He added: “I think the proper penalty for murder is capital punishment. If you do not give long enough sentences to people who are violent they will not be deterred.

“They will not care about another person’s life and they will not care about the damage they do to families.”

Mr Taylor added: “The Preddies will not spend long enough in prison to be rehabilitated. You can see from their faces that they will not have changed in three years.”

Criminologist and advisor on crime figures to the Home Office Dr David Green said: “The Lord Chief Justice is ignoring all the evidence that community sentences are not effective.

“Judges are sending people to jail because they feel they have no alternative.

“Lord Phillips’ reference to Judge Jeffreys is a slur on his colleagues. It is very wrong – an abomination.”

Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, said: “The Lord Chief Justice is wrong to say community sentences offer a better chance of preventing re-offending.

“Some 91 per cent of young people on the Government’s flagship scheme re-offend within two years. While re-offending rates of those who have been in prison have increased, this is due to prison over crowding.”

He added: “What the Government should do is answer our call to provide the necessary prison places so that offenders can go to prison with a purpose – to serve an appropriate length of sentence but also to receive proper effective rehabilitation – so as to prevent them re-offending.”