Life Sentences For Killers And Rapists Have Halved In Length Since 1997

Killers and rapists given ‘life’ sentences by the courts are walking free after an average of only six years behind bars, it emerged last night. The length of punishment has fallen by more than half since Labour came to power. In 1998, convicts given non-mandatory life terms – reserved for murderers – spent 14 years locked-up.

The sentence is normally given to people guilty of rape, armed robbery, manslaughter, extreme violence and serial burglary.

Victim groups said it made a mockery of the term ‘life’ sentence. Between 2004 and 2005 alone, the average time spent in custody fell from nine years to six.

It was blamed on the Government’s failure to provide enough prison places – forcing judges to hand down softer sentences, and the Parole Board to grant dangerous criminals their freedom earlier to create space.

Human rights laws have also put increased pressure on the board to release offenders at the first possible date.

David Green, of the Civitas think-tank, pointed to the sharp increase in the number of non-mandatory lifers walking free each year. It rocketed from eight in 1998 to 27 in 2002, and 44 last year.

The release of all life prisoners is the responsibility of the parole board. They are considered once a minimum tariff, set by the judge, has been completed.

Dr Green said: ‘It looks from the figures as if the Parole Board has been quietly asked to help with the prisons crisis, and they have tried to do their best by letting out more people to take the pressure off.’

He added: ‘It is just another reminder of the Government’s failure to provide enough places, particularly given the seriousness of the offences they have committed.’

The revelation was contained in a highly-damaging Home Office study, published.

It also showed the Government’s new indeterminate sentences – supposedly designed for the most dangerous criminals in the country – are much softer than suggested.

They allow an offender to be held in prison indefinitely, until the authorities no longer consider the public to be at risk.

But judges must set a minimum tariff, after which time they must be at least considered for release. The average tariff is only 30 months, while 147 of the 707 people given the punishment were given 18 months or less.

Alarmingly, 34 people – including robbers, those who made threats to kill and paedophiles – got less than 12 months.

It also emerged 990 prisoners released on parole were recalled to jail for either re-offending or breaching their release terms, up 39 per cent on the previous 12 months. The same happened to 111 offenders on life licence, up 56 per cent.

It suggests they are being freed to soon, critics said.

And 15 per cent of the 17,300 offenders set free from jail early wearing electronic tags also had to be returned to prison.

Of other categories of prisoner released early, 8,680 were returned to custody for breaches or new crimes, up five per cent.

The number of prisoners released on temporary licence at some stage in 2005 – such as to find a place to live after their sentence is finished – rose four per cent in 2005 to 405,260.

Opponents said the reduction in non-mandatory life-terms was another hammer blow to the Government’s pledge to restore confidence in the battered justice system.

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said: ‘The Government should answer our call to provide sufficient prison places so that those offenders who should be in prison are.

‘These offenders should also serve an honest and appropriate sentence.’

Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, said: ‘This shows how cheap the value of life has become on the streets of Britain.’

Dee Warner of Mothers against Murder and Aggression said Labour had failed to keep its promise to consider victims’ rights.

She added: ‘The Government and all those people who let them out – these nameless, faceless bureaucrats – are never ever held accountable.

‘No matter how brutal the killing is you constantly read they get a life sentence but it’s a seven year tariff.’

The Human Rights Act, reinforced by a European court ruling in 2002, has increased pressure on the Parole Board to set inmates free. It means convicts are now entitled to a barrister – paid for by legal aid – to represent them at their hearing.

Experts have warned the parole board, not wishing to have its decisions overturned, are paying more attention to the rights of the criminal than the public. Last year, the Parole Board handled 1,630 legally-aided cases, at a cost of £2.4m.

In May, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Probation Andrew Bridges said rapist Anthony Rice had been freed from prison to murder because his human rights had been placed above protecting the public.

Rice, who butchered mother-of-one Naomi Bryant while supposedly under probation supervision, should have been considered ‘too dangerous’ to release, he said.

He had been represented at his parole hearing by a lawyer who threatened the board with a judicial review if they turned the request down, an increasingly common practice.

A Home Office spokesman said: ‘These statistics clearly demonstrate why we need to put public protection at the heart of criminal justice, and why it is so important that we are able to carry out our proposed reforms of the offender management system to improve the assessment and management of all offenders in the community.

The period of imprisonment served by criminals handed a mandatory life jail term – the punishment given to murderers – remained stable at 14 years before parole.

It has been at around the same mark for the past eight years.