Row over Clarke plans to reduce prison numbers justice

MURDERERS could serve less time in prison under Government plans that would see shorter sentences, fewer criminals in jail and more offenders handed fines or community sentences.

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke outlined plans which would give judges more discretion over how long killers should spend behind bars.

A "simpler, more sensible" approach that "leaves the judge to do justice in the individual case" will be put in place.

Other plans include letting foreign nationals escape jail as long as they leave the UK forever, wiping the slate clean for young offenders when they reach 18 so they are not hindered by a criminal record, and halving sentences for those who plead guilty early.

The Government's plans immediately came under fire from Tory backbenchers worried criminals would avoid being sent to prison.

Senior Tory Edward Leigh, MP for Gainsborough, said he was concerned by Mr Clarke's comments about prison not continuing to be "an expensive way of giving communities a break", saying: "I'm sorry. Communities deserve a break. They deserve a break from being burgled."

But Mr Clarke insisted that prisons will remain "first and foremost as a place of punishment where people lose their liberty as reparation for what they have done".

"No-one's intending to reduce the sentence for the serious criminal murderer," Mr Clarke said as he outlined plans to scrap legislation that attempts to analyse "each and every sort of murder largely by the method used by the murderer".

Foreign nationals who commit offences will also be able to escape with a caution if they agree to leave the UK forever under the proposals, Mr Clarke said.

But he warned that the introduction of conditional cautions, rather than jailing foreign nationals at the taxpayers' expense, would not apply to the most serious criminals.

Controversial indefinite sentences for the public protection, described by the Prison Reform Trust as "one of the least carefully planned and implemented pieces of legislation in the history of British sentencing", will be curtailed.

They will be reserved for only the most serious offenders jailed for more than 10 years and who still pose a serious risk to the public.

Mr Clarke told MPs the Green Paper marked a change in policy that will "put more emphasis on reducing reoffending without reducing the punishment of offenders".

Under the proposals, efforts would be made to give young offenders a second chance to get their lives back on track.

"'Wiping the slate clean' once the offender reaches adulthood is a possible approach for all but the most serious offences," the consultation document said.

Community sentences will be made "more credible with more demanding work and greater use of tough curfew requirements" and plans for more offenders to directly compensate victims of crime will be brought forward.

TIME OFF FOR PAGAN PRISONERS TO HONOUR LACTATING SHEEP

Pagan prisoners will be allowed four days off work next year for festivals which celebrate lactating sheep and promiscuity.

The Prison Service will allow inmates who follow the religion to choose four days from the eight recognised Pagan holidays when they must be excused from work. Arrangements could also be made for inmates to be served traditional food, which includes roast boar and non-alcoholic mead.

The prison instruction, Religious Festival Dates for 2011, includes similar provisions for those who follow other religions.

The Pagan festivals include Imbolc, the "festival of the lactating sheep", on February 1, which marks the beginning of spring, and Beltane, on May 1, which marks the arrival of summer, and in Old Celtic traditions was a time of unabashed promiscuity.