THE Attorney-General is leading a drive for tougher jail terms to be imposed by judges in some of the most serious sexual and violent crimes.
Lord Goldsmith, QC, the Government?s senior law officer, is concerned about low levels of sentencing for manslaughter and child abuse, and has asked the Sentencing Guidelines Council to review both offences.
He favours heavier sentences for manslaughter, arguing that the gap between jail terms and sentences for murder is too big.
He backs draft proposals from the Law Commission for new ?categories? of murder that would enable a better match between jail terms and the severity of an offence.
The sentencing drive is backed by wider powers being brought into force. From tomorrow, Lord Goldsmith?s power to challenge sentences will expand to include middleranking sexual offences as well as the most serious offences that he can already tackle.
He is challenging in the Court of Appeal the ?double-jeopardy? principle that gives criminals discounts on their rightful sentences on the ground that they have been through the sentencing process twice. The move, which chimes with Tony Blair?s attack on the failings of the criminal justice system, comes as The Times has learnt that most challenges over lenient sentences are being brought over sexual and violent offences.
Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show that last year, of 106 cases considered by the Court of Appeal on a referral by the Attorney-General, the largest categories were for violence (23), then sexual offences (19), robbery (18) and drugs (17).
Senior judges increased sentences in 63 per cent of sexual offences being challenged and in 69 per cent of violent offences, figures show.
In 2005, 389 sentences thought to be too lenient were sent in to Lord Goldsmith (by prosecutors and the public), compared with 277 in 2001.
Fewer than one in three is then sent to the Court of Appeal. Of the 106 reviewed by the court, sentences were found to be ?unduly lenient? in 75 per cent of cases. Jail terms were increased, however, in only 61 per cent of cases, often because of the double-jeopardy principle.
?The average length of sentence has gone up in the last eight to nine years from about 23 to 27 months. But there are pockets of concern and one of these problems is with manslaughter,? Lord Goldsmith said. ?One of the reasons I support the big review of homicide is that the difference between the sentence for murder and manslaughter is so great.
?If you are convicted of murdering a partner or wife, the starting point is a minimum of 15 years, which is the equivalent of a 30-year sentence.
?If you get convicted of manslaughter because of provocation, the sentence may be no more than seven to eight years.We really have to look at this.?
The other main category about which the Attorney- General is concerned is child sex abuse. He recently lodged an appeal before a rare five-judge Court of Appeal over the jail terms imposed on two babysitters, Alan Webster and Tanya French, who repeatedly raped a 12-week baby girl. A decision is awaited.
Lord Goldsmith lodged an appeal in 2002 on the level of sentences in the case of abuse of young children. ?I was concerned that some judges were not taking seriously enough the impact of abuse on young children,? he said. Sentencing levels had improved but not enough. He said that he would prefer to see ?higher sentences in this field?.
Lord Goldsmith has brought challenges that have led to higher sentencing levels in such areas as human trafficking, street robbery and death by dangerous driving. He said that there was still a problem in cases of causing death by careless driving. ?I believed there is a case for giving the courts powers to imprison in such cases,? he said.