UK’s Worst Criminals Would Serve More Jail Time in ‘Radical’ Sentencing Overhaul

September 17, 2020 Updated: September 17, 2020

Violent and sexual offenders in England and Wales would serve more time in jail as part of sweeping sentencing changes proposed by the Ministry of Justice on Sept. 16.

Aimed at cutting crime and restoring public faith in sentencing, the “radical” justice plan would allow child-killers in England and Wales to get whole life orders (WLOs), meaning they’d never be released from prison. This would also extend to 18- to 20-year-olds if their crimes are judged serious enough.

Since 2003, the law has forbidden giving WLOs to 18- to 20-year-olds, no matter what their crime.

Under the proposals, which will be put forward for legislation next year, many types of offenders would stay in prison for at least two-thirds of their sentences and no longer be considered for release halfway through.

Second and Third Strikes

The new sentencing measures, set out in a white paper (pdf) from Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, would also toughen the criteria that allow judges to hand down less than the minimum statutory terms for “second strike” knife possession and “third strike” burglary offenses.

With serious offenses, the public wants to know that the corresponding sentences will keep them safe and better reflect “the gravity of the crimes committed,” Buckland said, addressing the House of Commons.

Robert Buckland
Secretary of State for Justice Robert Buckland arrives at Downing Street in London on Sept. 8, 2020. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Buckland highlighted recent terror attacks perpetrated by offenders serving fixed-term sentences who had been released automatically, only to commit “horrifying acts of violence” after leaving prison.

The new measures would give judges the power to refer such offenders considered dangerous or posing a terror threat to the parole board for assessment before being set free.

The tougher sentencing measures would “keep offenders who pose a risk to the public off our streets for longer,” Buckland said. He also said the reforms would make sentencing simpler, more transparent, and stop judges and lawyers from having to be “overly focused” on technicalities.

Duty to the Public

Over the past 30 years, sentencing had become “hugely complex” but “nowhere near as effective,” with judges sometimes having to impose sentences that seem to make “little sense,” Buckland said in a speech on Sept. 16 to introduce the white paper.

“The first duty of any government is to keep the public safe from harm,” he said.

“It is a responsibility this government takes extremely seriously, and my department has been working on a range of measures to make the sentencing system work better to protect people and to reduce crime.”

Protecting the public also involves improving rehabilitation and reducing re-offending, Buckland said.

“Finding new ways to break cycles of crime—to prevent a revolving door of short custodial sentences that we know offer little rehabilitative value,” is important, Buckland told Parliament.

Smart Interventions

Buckland highlighted the need for “smart interventions” that minimize repeat petty offenders “going back and forth to prison.”

“Offenders in this category often live chaotic lifestyles, sometimes driven by drug and alcohol misuse, or poor mental health,” Buckland said in his speech. “Their backgrounds are often characterized by entrenched poverty, absent role models, and a lack of any decent education.”

To address repeated low-level offending, the new measures propose a test of five “problem-solving” courts, which will take a new approach.

In a bid to address the “sliding scale of increasing inevitability that we cannot ignore,” the program won’t seek to imprison high-needs or frequent low-level offenders.

Instead, it will try “innovative solutions” such as “graduated sanction incentives,” Buckland said.

To boost rehabilitation, the new measures include changes to the disclosures of custodial sentences ex-offenders must make to prospective employers. With exclusions for serious violence and sexual or terrorist attacks, many sentences under the proposals will become “spent” earlier, and not have to be disclosed.

Mental Health and Housing Concerns

There also will be more support for mental health and treatment for addictions as part of sentencing, and more tagging, curfews, and deferred sentencing as alternatives to prison. There will also be additional support for offenders with autism and dyslexia, and more empowerment for probation services.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Sept. 16, Labour Member of Parliament David Lammy welcomed much of the White Paper, but said the changes wouldn’t be enough on their own, citing the homelessness and uncertainty facing ex-offenders as obstacles to rehabilitation.

“Ministry of Justice data show that between 9 June and 31 July this year, nearly a third of prisoners—2,400 people—were released homeless or to an unknown circumstance,” Lammy said.

“How will longer sentences protect the public if people continue to be released homeless and without the chance to turn their lives around?” ​

Housing concerns for offenders leaving prison were noted earlier this month by national social justice charity Nacro in a joint letter (pdf) signed by the Prison Reform Trust, the Bounce Back Foundation, and 19 other voluntary organizations.

The letter, addressed to Buckland and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, called for the provision of somewhere to live for everyone leaving prison.

“This should be safe and secure accommodation which provides a foundation for them to make positive changes and move away from a life of crime,” the letter states.

“For people leaving prison, being released homeless is simply setting them up to fail.”

The letter also said that nearly 1,000 people are released from prison monthly with no home to go to, and that significantly increases the risk of re-offending.

A safe, secure home on release for those leaving prison “seemed an impossible dream for too long,” the letter states.

Recent Cases

The new sentencing proposals follow the sentencing to 55 years in prison of Hashem Abedi in August.

Abedi, the judge said, would have gotten a WLO if he hadn’t been under the age of 21 at the time he committed the Manchester Arena bombing that killed 22 people and injured hundreds, almost half of whom were children or teenagers.

The tougher sentencing proposals also coincide with the ongoing Harper’s Law campaign that was launched by Lissie Harper in August to seek tougher sentences for the killers of emergency service workers.

Lissie launched her campaign following the on-duty death of her husband, Police Constable Andrew Harper, who was dragged behind a getaway car. His three killers, a 19-year-old and two 18-year-olds, were each sentenced to between 13 and 16 years in prison.