Boris Johnson has indicated violent or sexual offenders could remain locked up for longer if he becomes prime minister – which one prisons expert has described as ‘political posturing and sheer nonsense.’
The Tory leadership hopeful said it was wrong that prisoners were routinely let out after serving just half of the sentence handed down in court.
Mr Johnson also said Theresa May had been wrong to introduce curbs on the police’s stop and search powers, and said it was important to “change that balance back” in favour of officers.
But while he struck a tough tone on law and order, Mr Johnson hinted to the Daily Mail he could grant an amnesty for long-term illegal migrants.
Setting out his views on sentencing, the former London mayor told the newspaper: “I’m afraid there are too many people, because of the way the sentencing law works, who have committed serious violence or sexual offences who are being let out, as the law prescribes, after they’ve served only half the sentence that is pronounced in open court.
“This is happening. And I’m talking about serious sexual or violent offenders.
“And I think the public is noticing this, quite properly. They don’t think it’s right, and I don’t think it’s right.”
Mr Johnson promised a “relentless focus” on knife crime and criticised the 2014 measures on stop and search brought in by Mrs May.
“When it comes to stop and search, the fact is that we went wrong when we decided to change the rules on the best use of stop and search.
“We made it more difficult. And I think it’s important that we change that balance back.”
Mr Johnson has already pledged to spend £1.1 billion a year funding 20,000 extra police officers as part of his pitch to Tory members to elect him as their leader on July 23.
This is political posturing and sheer nonsense of the worst kind, not least because it places prison officers in even greater danger in terms of discipline and control, but because it also assumes Judges know nothing about release arrangements and, what’s more, it totally ignores the reality that the power to issue an extended sentence to sexual and violent offenders already exists.
The fact is there is not a single prison officer or governor who would thank you for imposing a regime where the most dangerous violent and sexual offenders have to serve their whole sentence in custody.
The prospect of early release is one of the most potent weapons they have in their armoury to encourage compliance, removing it would render that weapon impotent and place the most dangerous offenders in a position where they have nothing to gain or lose from custodial behaviour.
Secondly, our judges know exactly that the Criminal Justice Act 2003 means the vast majority of offenders are released at the half-way point of their sentence, and are then subject to strict licence conditions and recall until the end of the sentence.
Judges I have spoken to tell me that, within sentencing guidelines, which confer a wide discretion on sentence length, they determine the amount of time they want a person to serve in custody and, where the law allows, they double it.
Removing that automatic release wouldn’t mean someone sentenced today to ten years would then serve ten years – the reality is that the sentence imposed would simply be halved so the custodial portion of the sentence remains exactly the same.
Finally the reality is that the courts already have the power to impose an extended sentence on dangerous violent or sexual offenders, which may be given to an offender aged 18 or over when:
the offender is guilty of a specified violent or sexual offence;
the court assesses the offender as a significant risk to the public of committing further specified offences;
a sentence of imprisonment for life is not available or justified; and
the offender has a previous conviction for an offence listed in schedule 15B to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 or the current offence justifies an appropriate custodial term of at least four years.
These sentences were introduced to provide extra protection to the public in certain types of cases where the court has found that the offender is dangerous and an extended licence period is required to protect the public from risk of harm.
The judge decides how long the offender should stay in prison and also fixes the extended licence period up to a maximum of eight years. The offender will either be entitled to automatic release at the two thirds point of the custodial sentence, not the half-way point as Johnson asserts, or be entitled to apply for parole at that point.
If parole is refused the offender will be released at the expiry of the prison term. Following release, the offender will be subject to the licence where he will remain under the supervision of HM Prison and Probation Service until the expiry of the extended period.
The combined total of the prison term and extension period cannot be more than the maximum sentence for the offence committed.
In 2017, a total of 575 offenders were given an extended sentence.
If, as appears likely, Johnson is the next Conservative politician to be crowned Prime Minister, I can only hope that senior Civil Servants will educate him on the reality of the situation which, at the current time he appears to be completely ignorant about.
Mark Leech is the Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales and tweets under the tag @prisonsorguk