A statement by the Lord Chief Justice
My decisions today as to the minimum terms to be served by young offenders sentenced to be detained during her Majesty's pleasure are the latest of the reviews which I have carried out at the request of the Home Secretary. I have reviewed 79 cases (including those I have announced today). There are fewer than 30 further cases awaiting review.
I am aware that recently my decisions in these cases have attracted publicity and I am concerned that the public may not have been given an accurate picture of the review process. I take this opportunity, therefore, to clarify my role and put my decisions on individual cases into context.
A person convicted of a murder committed when he or she was under the age of 18 is sentenced to detention at Her Majesty's pleasure. A minimum term is set for each such offender. The minimum term is the period that must be served before the Parole Board considers that individual for release. The offender will not be automatically released on expiry of the minimum term. Instead, he or she will be subject to a risk assessment by the Parole Board, the principal aim of the Board being to protect the public. If the Parole Board considers that an offender is suitable for release, he or she will be released on licence, subject to supervision in the community and at risk of recall to custody for the rest of his or her life.
The sentence of detention at Her Majesty's pleasure has always carried with it an expectation that the period spent in custody will be reviewed from time to time. In the past the Home Secretary carried out the review. The law was changed, following the decision of Thompson and Venables in the European Court of Human Rights, to give the trial judge responsibility for setting the minimum term for all offenders sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure since 30 November 2000.
A transitional mechanism was required to deal with all those offenders detained at Her Majesty's pleasure who were still serving a minimum term set by the Home Secretary, but whose minimum term could no longer be reviewed by the Home Secretary. It is those cases that I am currently reviewing.
In reviewing the minimum term set for each offender, I start by accepting that the minimum term already set was correct at the time it was set. My task is to consider the way the offender has responded to his or her time in custody. I will not reduce the minimum term unless, on the evidence placed before me by the prison service, I am satisfied that there has been a significant change in the offender's attitude and behaviour. I also look for evidence that the offender has expressed real regret about the crime committed and shown what is considered by the experienced writers of the reports that I see to be genuine concern for the usually terrible consequences for the victim's family.
Given the young age, at which these offenders committed their crimes, it is inevitable that many of them will still be relatively young when they re-emerge into society. It is in society's interests that they make good progress towards rehabilitation and tackle the causes of their criminal conduct while they are still in custody. Where such progress has been made, it is important to encourage further improvement by way of a modest reduction in the minimum term that has to be served before release can be considered by the Parole Board.
I know that the families of the victims of these young offenders often find the news that the minimum term is under review extremely distressing. I recognise how difficult the process can be for them. Any reduction in the minimum term is not intended to indicate that the original crime is now being viewed less seriously. Rather, it is a response to the marked improvements in behaviour exhibited by some young offenders during a lengthy period of custody. Before deciding on a reduction, I always take into account the views expressed by the victim's family and I endeavour, having done so, to take the action which is most likely to serve the interests of the public.
I emphasise that there is no question of my reducing the sentence. The sentence remains detention during Her Majesty's pleasure and, even after the offenders are released as a result of the recommendation of the Parole Board, they are liable for the rest of their lives to be recalled if they do not comply with the terms of their licence.
The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales
26th July 2002