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Criminal Justice: Sentencing

Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2006

The Minister of State for Northern Ireland (David Hanson) has made the following Ministerial Statement.

Protection of the public is the first duty of the criminal justice system. That is one of the key reasons why, last year, the Northern Ireland Office undertook a comprehensive public consultation on proposals for reviewing the sentencing framework for Northern Ireland. As part of that process, I asked for views about how the criminal justice system can best tackle the threat which offenders, particularly violent and sexual offenders, pose to our society. It is the role of the Government to ensure that the widest possible range of sentencing options are available to the courts, to ensure that our responsibilities in terms of public protection, deterrence, punishment and rehabilitation can be fully realised.

Today I am able to announce that I intend to bring forward legislative proposals to introduce robust new indeterminate and extended public protection sentences that would, in future, put an end to automatic 50 per cent remission for dangerous violent and sexual offenders. These sentences would mean that those committing the most serious offences could, if necessary, be detained indefinitely, while those committing other specified offences could be detained to the end of their prison sentence.

Release, when it is deemed appropriate, would be decided by a new independent professional body, akin to the Parole Board in England and Wales, which would have to be satisfied that these offenders no longer pose a risk of serious harm to the public. Those released would remain subject to supervision for an extended period and would be required to comply with specific licence conditions, which would target, where appropriate, the factors which contributed to their offending in the first place. Offenders’ compliance with their licence conditions would be stringently monitored throughout the licence period, and breaches could result in their immediate recall to custody.

When implemented, the revised framework would see the end of automatic 50 per cent remission and the introduction of supervised licence periods for all prisoners. For this purpose, I intend to build on the successful foundations of existing statutory provisions to create a new sentence providing for compulsory post-release supervision. This would provide that the court would set a clearly defined custodial part of the sentence, which the offender must serve in full before being released on licence to serve the remainder of their sentence under supervision in the community. Offenders who breach their licence conditions can be subject to recall to custody to complete their sentence.

In support of these stringent supervision arrangements, I also intend to take powers to introduce electronic monitoring. The ability to tag prisoners would enable us more effectively to monitor their compliance with any curfew-based licence conditions while serving or completing their sentences under supervision in the community. I will additionally be making provision for electronic monitoring to be available as a condition of bail where the court feels this would be warranted.

As part of the overall approach to modernising the sentencing framework, I have also been examining measures which might provide a viable alternative to custody for low-risk offenders who do not constitute a danger to the public and for whom imprisonment may not necessarily be the most appropriate disposal. I intend to introduce a range of measures to support the collection of fines and provide that offenders defaulting on payment of fines may be subject to non-custodial sentences, requiring them to undertake unpaid work in the community rather than being imprisoned for very short periods, which, for some, have little deterrent or rehabilitative effect.

I also intend, subject to resources, to implement existing statutory provisions for drug testing and treatment orders. These orders would provide that individuals who do not pose a risk to the public and whose offending is triggered by dependency problems could, instead of being given a custodial sentence, be subject to these robust community sentences requiring them to undertake a treatment and rehabilitation programme. Their progress would be subject to review by the courts.

I propose to consult on a set of draft legislative proposals and will welcome further views on the detail of what is proposed at that time. Subject to those views and the availability of parliamentary time, the provisions should be passed into law during 2007. The fact that significant resources will be needed to give effect to these measures means that the pace of implementation will be dependent on the spending review settlement, to be agreed next summer.

I firmly believe that the package of measures which I have outlined will significantly enhance Northern Ireland's sentencing framework. It will provide courts with the range of sentencing options necessary to enable the sentence to reflect to the full the seriousness of the offence. It will provide increased supervision of offenders and a focus for rehabilitative efforts both in custody and in the community. And, most importantly, it will provide the community with enhanced public protection from the most dangerous people in our society.