In Depth

Fact check: five key questions about terrorism prison sentences in the UK

Fresh Government crackdown on terror offenders likely to be challenged in courts

The Government has announced plans for emergency legislation to delay the release of terrorist prisoners in the wake of an attack by a convicted extremist in south London this weekend.

Sudesh Amman, 20, stabbed two people in Streatham on Sunday before being shot dead by police. The attack came just two months after two people were fatally stabbed by Usman Khan at a prisoner rehabilitation event near London Bridge.

Both attackers had been automatically released on licence after serving half of their prison sentences for terrorism offences.

What is an act of terrorism?

Under the UK’s Terrorism Act 2000, terrorism is defined as the use or threat of action that involves serious violence to a person; serious damage to a property; endangers life; creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public; or is designed to seriously disrupt an electronic system. To qualify as terrorism, these actions or threats must be carried out in an attempt to influence the Government or intimidate the public with the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

“It is important to note that in order to be convicted of a terrorism offence a person doesn’t actually have to commit what could be considered a terrorist attack,” says the Crown Prosecution Service website. “Planning, assisting and even collecting information on how to commit terrorist acts are all crimes under British terrorism legislation.”

How many terrorism offenders are in UK prisons?

Latest figures show that 224 people were in prison for terrorist offences in Britain as of 30 September, reports the Financial Times. Of this total, more than three-quarters were classified as holding Islamist views.

“While the statistics did not reveal how many were approaching release, they showed that 53 prisoners were released in the year to June 2019,” says the newspaper.

How did automatic release start?

“Early release on parole has been a feature of the English penal system for many years,” says the BBC. The Parole Board was introduced in 1967 as a way to reduce prison populations and support rehabilitation.

However, problems in the system led to calls for further changes, and in 1991 the Conservatives introduced the framework for automatic release without the involvement of the Parole Board. Prisoners serving a term of less than four years were automatically released at the halfway point, while those serving longer sentences were automatically released after serving two-thirds, with the opportunity to apply to the Parole Board for release at their halfway point.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003, introduced under Labour, made the rules simpler. Prisoners with a determinate sentence - those of a fixed length - could be released automatically at the halfway point subject to a conditional licence for the rest of their sentence.

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What does Boris Johnson want to change?

The Government wants to alter the law so that terrorism offenders are only considered for release once they have served two-thirds of their sentence and only with the approval of the Parole Board. The prime minister wants this law change to apply to both future and current prisoners.

Ministers also want to review maximum sentences for terrorists and to ensure they are more closely monitored while on parole.

Is this legal?

Experts have said that applying the new law retrospectively to current inmates is likely to lead to challenges in the courts. The Law Society of England and Wales has also raised concerns about eventually releasing prisoners without any transition parole period.

Lord Carlile, a crossbench peer and former independent government reviewer of terrorism legislation, told BBC Two’s Newsnight: “The decision to lengthen the sentences of people who have already been sentenced and therefore expected to be serving half the sentence may be in breach of the law. It’s certainly going to be challenged.

“In any event, lengthening the sentence doesn’t solve the problem because those individuals are still going to have to come out of prison at some point.”


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