Attacks on strangers should receive toughest sentences, says campaign group

Violent criminals responsible for random attacks on strangers should receive some of the toughest punishments for assault, campaigners have said.

The Witness Confident charity said unprovoked attacks by strangers in public present the greatest harm as they account for the largest number of violent attacks – and there has been minimal success in reducing them over the past 12 years.

The campaign group yesterday called for the new sentencing guideline on assault – which could be brought into effect within the next few months – to "recognise the wider and greater public harm caused by such attacks", saying they "instil fear among people in the community at large".

Group director Guy Dehn said: "Absent any guidelines on sentencing (for stranger attacks), we imagine that a court, dealing with a case where a victim had been injured in an unprovoked attack by a stranger in a public place, would be minded to treat the offence as one that warrants a heavier sentence.

"Our concern is that if the guideline remains unchanged on this matter, a court may infer or be led to infer that such an approach is not consistent with sentencing policy.

"The fact that the guideline is silent on the type of assault that is most prevalent and does most harm to the public is unlikely to increase confidence in sentencing policy."

The Sentencing Council opened a consultation on the draft guideline in October, saying that judges and magistrates have often not followed the existing guidelines and there has been a "general trend towards longer sentences for all assault offences" over the last 10 years.

Under the proposals, the current "undue emphasis on premeditation" would be removed and the focus would switch to the harm caused and the culpability of the offender.

An impact assessment found the changes could lead to thousands of attackers being allowed to walk free from court, with judges handing down 3,000 fewer custodial sentences. The move could also save the prison service more than 16m a year and the probation service 3m a year.

Council chairman Lord Justice Leveson said: "None of us are soft on crime."