Dangerous Offenders May Lose Right To Early Release

{mosimage} Judges are likely to get powers to prevent the early release of dangerous criminals, under new sentencing proposals due to be announced today. Under current guidelines both dangerous and non-violent offenders are automatically freed from jail halfway through their sentences and then supervised in the community by probation officers.

Judges may also reduce the minimum jail term to be served by a dangerous offender in return for an early guilty plea. In July the home secretary, John Reid, pledged to examine whether judges should be able to order that serious offenders should stay in jail longer.

Today the Home Office will announce the results of that review, which are also expected to include ways to make jail terms clearer to the public.

The proposals come after public alarm at the sentence of the convicted paedophile Craig Sweeney. In June the 24-year-old was sentenced to life for abducting and sexually assaulting a three-year-old girl, but he will be eligible for parole after five years.

He attacked the girl in January 2006, weeks after his prison licence for a sex attack on another child ran out.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment, but was given a discount of one-third for his early guilty plea, receiving a minimum tariff of five years and 108 days.

The trial judge was criticised at the time, but he was working from rules set by the Home Office and its Sentencing Guidelines Council, which allow discounts for guilty pleas.

Today’s proposals are believed to include moves to grant judges the ability to override these rules, which were introduced two years ago by David Blunkett, then home secretary.

But under today’s plans judicial interventions are expected to apply only in a limited number of cases.

In July Mr Reid said he would consider scrapping automatic release of prisoners who had served half their sentences when there were “clear and significant risks to the public”.

Ahead of this morning’s announcement, Paul Cavadino, the chief executive of Nacro, the crime reduction charity, said: “Judges should have discretion over how much discount to give for a guilty plea.

“Offenders who plead guilty early and save witnesses the trauma of giving evidence should receive a greater discount than those who admit their guilt at the 11th hour.”

But he added: “Automatic release under supervision after half of the sentence should be retained for the majority of prisoners.”