Minister seeks ‘new approach’ to sentencing as changes to court powers set out

The Justice Secretary has called for a “new approach” to sentencing as he set out plans for a shake-up of powers for courts promising longer jail terms for serious offenders.

The Government’s Sentencing White Paper – which Robert Buckland said would result in a “fairer system” that better protects the public – also proposes 20-hour daily curfews for up to two years, community punishments and GPS tracking for burglars, robbers and thieves when they are released from prison.

During a speech on Wednesday for the think tank the Centre for Social Justice, Mr Buckland said the public “rightly expects child killers to feel the fullest and harshest extent of the law”, as he set out plans for whole life orders, including for 18-20-year-olds in exceptional cases.

Other serious adult offenders would be required to serve more of their term behind bars before they can be assessed for release, he pledged.

Speaking to the online audience, he said the White Paper is an “opportunity to grow trust and confidence in the sentencing system – in its ability to make the smart choices to protect the public from the harmful effects of crime, in whatever form they take”.

The announcement comes days after a parliamentary report warned prisons could run out of space to hold more criminals within the next three years, with some higher-risk inmates already having to be held in low-security jails.

Meanwhile courts in England and Wales are grappling with a backlog of more than half a million cases, with delays exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

At the same time, temporary laws are also being introduced to extend the custody time limit for people awaiting a trial for serious crimes.

The sentencing measures will also look at efforts to rehabilitate low-level criminals in a bid to reduce reoffending – like cutting the time before a conviction is classed as “spent” so they can find work and have flexible curfew rules around a job.

Mr Buckland told the webinar that sentencing failures perpetuate low-level offenders getting stuck in a life of crime and having little hope of turning things around.

He added: “Aside from the social impact, it is also a waste of money, with the cost of reoffending running into the billions every year.

“We need a new approach.”

The changes would “encourage courts to look at other alternatives to custody” and try to prevent low-level and repeat offenders from “going back and forth to prison, for short custodial sentences that hold little rehabilitative value for them”, Mr Buckland said.

He hailed the idea of having five “problem-solving” courts, pledging these would take a “completely new approach to dealing with low-level offending”.

Mr Buckland said it is also time to make a “concerted effort” to address the approach to offenders with conditions like autism and dyslexia, adding: “If a neurodivergent condition and its associated needs are not recognised as early as possible and appropriate interventions put in place, then it can set up a chain reaction for the offender, cascading failure throughout the system.

“This is not frankly their fault but the effects on their lives and their life chances can be devastating.

“We must never forget that to commit crime is to make a choice.

“There is, however, a sliding scale of increasing inevitability that we cannot ignore.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already said the reforms will make it easier for “judges to put dangerous offenders behind bars for longer” but, amid a target to hire 20,000 extra police officers, he told the Cabinet on Tuesday: “There’s no point in catching the criminals if they are simply going to be let out early.”