Victims of crime being misled by prison sentences, former Lord Chief Justice says

former lord chief justice
Lord John Thomas of Cwmgiedd, who served as head of the judiciary from 2013 to 2017  Credit:  John Stillwell/PA

Victims of crime are being misled by prison sentences, the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales has said.

Lord John Thomas of Cwmgiedd, who served as head of the judiciary from 2013 to 2017, has called for “critical” reform of the advice given to victims by police officers and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on how long their perpetrators will actually spend in prison.

The current lack of clarity leaves victims feeling “fed up” when they later find out that the offender is to be automatically released halfway through their sentence, he said.

His comments come after the Victims’ Commissioner Baroness Newlove expressed concern that victims are losing confidence in the criminal justice system by being left in the dark over the way most criminals spend only half of their sentence in custody.

“There is a need for reform. It is absolutely critical,” Lord Thomas told the Telegraph. “It is awful that a victim feels that someone has had a sentence of four years and doesn’t appreciate that they might be released from custody half way.

Baroness Newlove believes victims of crime are being left in the dark over the reality of prison sentencing Credit: Paul Grover for the Telegraph

“I can see why they get fed up. I think the victims’ commissioner is quite right. It is a reluctance to engage in spelling out the truth of sentencing.”

Lord Thomas said that the current language used in a judges’ sentencing remarks “is not explicit enough” and should be translated into the “everyday language that people speak”.

“I think the communication needs to transliterated in such a way that it sits into the modern way of life - not 20 years ago,” he said. “If you have been subjected to a violent attack or you have been raped, you are not in a state of mind where you are able to fully analyse all that has been said.

“This needs looking at. It is apparent that communicating between A and B is not working, so we need to ask ourselves why it isn’t working, address the problem and put it right.”

Introduced in 2005 by Tony Blair’s government, automatic release permits offenders serving a determinate sentence to spend half of their sentence in prison before being released to spend the other half in the outside world on licence.

The policy has been misunderstood by the general public “for a considerable period of time,” Lord Thomas said, as he admitted that it has become a way of letting offenders “out of the back door” to reduce prison populations whilst appearing to give them long sentences.

“The point of [automatic release] initially was that if we said to someone you need not serve the whole of the term in prison, that helped us to be able to say ‘behave properly and you might come out earlier’,” he said. “But I regret to say it became a matter of managing the prison population - if you could keep sentences high but actually let them out the back door.”

Lord Thomas’ concerns of sentencing transparency were supported by his predecessor Lord Nicholas Phillips of Worth Matravers, who was the Lord Chief Justice from 2005 to 2008.

“I suspect that not enough information is being given to victims. This is something that can be quite easily remedied,” he said.