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Offenders Will Be Forced To Attend Sentencing In Law And Order Overhaul

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, left, and leader of the opposition Keir Starmer arrive for the State Opening of Parliament (Alamy)

4 min read

Government plans to compel offenders to attend their sentencing hearings, and suspended sentences could become the norm for criminals sentenced to a year or less in prison, as Rishi Sunak put law and order at the heart of his first King’s Speech.

A Sentencing Bill and a Criminal Justice Bill will propose changes throughout the justice system, from sentencing in murder trials, to antisocial behaviour policing. 

The speech also included details of a Victims and Prisoners Bill, which looks to bring in reforms to improve victims' experiences of the criminal justice system. 

Addressing Parliament earlier today, the King said that the government “will act to keep communities safe from crime, anti-social behaviour, terrorism and illegal migration”. 

“A bill will be brought forward to ensure tougher sentences for the most serious offenders and increase the confidence of victims," he added. 

“My ministers will introduce legislation to empower police forces and the criminal justice system to prevent new or complex crimes, such as digital-enabled crime and child sexual abuse, including grooming.” 

The Sentencing Bill will include measures which mean that rapists and people convicted of the most serious sexual offences serve every day of their custodial term in prison, and courts will be mandated to impose whole life orders for offences which that lifelong sentence is currently the starting point, and also for murder with sexual or sadistic conduct. 

The Bill will also legislate for suspended sentences to be favoured if people are sentenced to 12 months or fewer by the courts, which currently means they serve a maximum of six months in custody. 

Judges will still have discretion to send people to prison if they are deemed a risk to the public and in other circumstances. 

Ministers will also bring forward a Criminal Justice Bill, which the King said would “empower police forces and the criminal justice system to prevent new or complex crimes”. 

Among the powers expected in this legislation will be compelling defendants to attend their sentencing hearings, after a number of high-profile court cases have seen the defendant refuse to sit in the dock to hear their punishment. 

Probation officers will also be given more powers to use polygraph tests – which measure changes in heart rate and blood pressure – on serious terror or sexual offenders, and murdering a partner at the end of a relationship will be made an aggravating factor when it comes to judges imposing sentences. 

Ministers have also been keen to introduce more measures to tackle anti-social behaviour, and the legislation will expand drugs testing at arrest, as well as increase the maximum penalty for selling weapons to children under 18, and make possession of a bladed article with the intent to cause harm a criminal offence. 

There will also be measures relating to technology, with police given greater access to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency database, and powers to tackle organised crime groups by legislating for police to enter premises without a warrant but based on GPS location data, to seize stolen goods. 

Powers in the Bill to transfer prisoners out of England and Wales to serve their sentences abroad, and giving chief officers the right to appeal results from misconduct boards are part of Government's plans to enhance the justice system. 

The Victims and Prisoners Bill will look to improve the confidence that victims have in the criminal justice system, with measures such as improving the provision of support services. It will also propose the introduction of an Independent Public Advocate, who will work on behalf of the victims of major incidents, such as the Grenfell Tower fire or Manchester Arena bombing.

It will legislate for changes to the parole system to give ministers more oversight when it comes to the release of the most dangerous offenders such as murderers or terrorists, and will make changes so that prisoners who are serving whole life orders cannot marry or enter into civil partnerships while in prison. 

Speaking ahead of the King’s Speech today, Sunak said that he wants everybody in the country to feel safe. 

“Thanks to this Government, crime is down, but we must always strive to do more, taking the right long-term decisions for the country and keeping the worst offenders locked up for longer. In the most despicable cases, these evil criminals must never be free on our streets again,” he said. 

“Life needs to mean life.”

Reacting to parts of the proposals that the government had briefed overnight, Labour's shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood said: “There’s no use posturing on law and order when the criminal justice system is crumbling under the government’s feet after 13 years of mismanagement." 

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