Courts get new sentencing guidelines for terror cases following shift in threat

Terrorists caught in the early stages of an attack plot will face tougher punishments under landmark sentencing guidelines.

Offenders who play a minor role in terror planning could also receive harsher penalties from next month.

The approach has been drawn up in response to a shift in the threat, with conspiracies escalating to the point of violence more quickly and often involving "low-tech" attack methods using cars or knives.

In an indication of how terrorists have exploited technology, the use of encrypted communications to avoid detection or repeated accessing of extremist material are listed as potential "aggravating" factors that can be taken into account when judges weigh up sentences.

On Wednesday, the Sentencing Council will publish the first comprehensive guidance on a number of terrorism offences for courts in England and Wales.

Work started on the plans in 2016 but they are being fast-tracked after Britain was hit by five attacks last year.

A key change applies to offences under section 5 of the Terrorism Act 2006, which can be used to prosecute individuals who plan terrorist acts or those who help others in the plotting.

In 2016, the Court of Appeal issued guidance for sentences imposed under the section.

This has worked effectively to now, but the "changing nature of offending" means it needs to be reconsidered, according to the Sentencing Council.

It noted that terrorist acts seen in recent times have involved "far less sophisticated methods" than was previously the case.

Three attacks involved vehicles last year, while knives were used in the Westminster and London Bridge atrocities.

The new guidelines will keep the same maximum sentence of life with a minimum term of 40 years for section 5 cases.

But the sentencing range for the lowest-level crimes will be set at three to six years - compared to 21 months to five years under the existing guidance.

Cases that could fall into this category include those where preparations are not well developed, or where an offender offers a small amount of assistance to others.

The Sentencing Council said it decided that "when considering these actions in the current climate, where a terrorist act could be planned in a very short time period, using readily available items such as vehicles as weapons, combined with online extremist material providing encouragement and inspiration, these lower-level offences are more serious than they have previously been perceived".

Ninety adult offenders were sentenced for section 5 offences between 2006 and 2016, with 81 given immediate prison terms. The average sentence length was eight years and five months.

Sentencing Council Chairman Lord Justice Treacy said: "Terrorist offences are among the most serious that come before the courts.

"Offending can include an extremist cell plotting a deadly attack on the public, someone trying to make a bomb or another recruiting for a terrorist organisation.

"As well as the threat to people's lives, terrorist activity threatens the way our society operates.

"These threats have evolved and we are ensuring that courts have comprehensive guidance to help them sentence offenders appropriately so they are properly punished and their activities are disrupted."

Other offences covered by the new guidelines include causing or attempting to cause an explosion, collecting or sharing extremist material, raising funds for terrorism, glorifying terrorist acts and joining or supporting a banned organisation.

After the plans were detailed in a consultation last year, the Parole Board suggested that increasing the severity of sentences for lower-level terrorism offences risked making the perpetrators more dangerous following release.

The guidelines come into force on April 27.

Justice minister Rory Stewart said: "We're determined to keep communities safe by deterring and disrupting terror activity in every way we can.

"We've already extended the scheme for appealing unduly lenient sentences to cover more terror offences, and these new guidelines will help ensure those who encourage, plot or carry out these horrifying crimes are properly punished."

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