Prisoners serving fixed terms for serious offences will no longer be freed automatically at the halfway stage under wide-ranging reforms of sentencing laws to be unveiled by the government this week.
Instead, the government will propose that a high court judge be given power to decide whether an offender serving a 'determinate sentence' should be released after 50 per cent of their term.
The move is one of several measures being pushed by the Home Office to restore public confidence following a series of high-profile court cases in which offenders were perceived to have received light custodial sentences.
The government wants to be seen to be placing the victim's needs at the centre of the judicial process and dampen criticism that the system is too lenient on dangerous offenders. Ministers are determined to contrast their law-and-order policies with what they plan increasingly to portray as consistent Tory opposition to tougher measures.
Downing Street sources said yesterday that law and order would be the main theme of Tony Blair's monthly news conference tomorrow, and he was expected to reiterate the government's commitment to identity cards as well as to ensuring the justice system was responsive to the concerns of 'law-abiding citizens'.
The government's position was made more difficult by off-the-cuff comments at a barristers' conference yesterday by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, that 'there is general chaos in a number of cases' in the system. He qualified the remarks by saying this was not true 'in all cases' and adding: 'It is getting better. We all need to try and make it better.
In response, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg said: 'Finally a government minister has admitted what has been widely suspected for some time: 10 years of tough talk from Tony Blair and his Home Secretaries have led to systematic operational incompetence throughout our criminal justice system. Overflowing prisons, heightened public fear of crime and some of the highest reoffending rates in the Western world are the legacy of this government's shameless populism.'
In July, the Home Secretary, John Reid, attacked the length of a sentence handed down to a paedophile, Craig Sweeney, after learning that although he was given an indefinite 'life' sentence, he would become eligible for parole after serving little more than five years.
In a foreword to a consultation document, 'Rebalancing the Criminal Justice System', published last summer, the Prime Minister acknowledged the strength of public feeling. 'There is a worrying gap between what the decent majority expect of a criminal justice system and what they see it delivering,' Blair wrote. 'The public believes the system shows more concern for the rights of those who break or ignore the law than those who keep it.'
Although it was unlikely Sweeney would in fact serve the minimum sentence, the decision provoked a furore. It followed several cases in which dangerous offenders had been released early and went on to commit murders.
On Wednesday, in a bid to quell public anxiety, the Home Office will outline its proposals to update the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which introduced automatic release at the halfway stage of fixed-term sentences with the rest of the sentence completed under supervision of the probation service. Now, a judge who believes that an offender has either not been rehabilitated or continues to be a threat to the public will be given power to overrule automatic release.
Any suggestion that serious offenders could soon be spending more time in prison is likely to be well received by newspapers such as the Sun, which has campaigned against automatic release.
But experts accused the government of a U-turn. 'The government has lost its way on sentencing policy,' said Richard Garside, acting director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London. 'It continues to unpick a framework it only introduced a couple of years ago.
'There is no sense of an underlying philosophy, or a clear set of principles that could guide its decisions... it is left lurching from one crisis to another, chasing short-term headlines while doing nothing to address the underlying malaise in the sentencing system.'