Ulster's controversial 50% remission policy for dangerous sex offenders and violent criminals will not be abolished until the spring, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.
Almost a year after his predecessor David Hanson announced he would scrap the controversial scheme - which allows rapists and violent criminals back onto our streets after half their sentence - Paul Goggins has finally revealed that new legislation will not be in place until May next year.
Around 130 sex offenders will walk free between now and then under the current legislation. Furthermore, anyone convicted of a sex offence before May will also be entitled to 50% remission.
Mr Goggins - in an interview with the Telegraph - insisted he did not want to "act in haste" in case the new legislation did not work effectively, but he has been accused of "making excuses" by an MP who claimed the law could have been changed much earlier.
Since December, when Mr Hanson agreed to abolish the practice after 35,000 people signed up to the Telegraph's Justice For Attracta campaign, more than 50 sex offenders have been released halfway through their sentence.
The Justice For Attracta campaign, calling for an end to 50% remission, was launched after Strabane pensioner Attracta Harron was brutally murdered by evil Trevor Hamilton shortly after his early release from jail where he had served half of a seven-year sentence for rape.
Under the new laws, which Mr Goggins described as "the biggest shake-up in criminal justice in a generation for Northern Ireland", automatic 50% remission for high risk offenders will be replaced with a system of indeterminate and extended sentencing, which will see dangerous criminals being assessed and their suitability for release reviewed by a new parole board- type organisation.
Mr Goggins said ending the current policy is a top priority.
"This idea that sex offenders and dangerous criminals just go to jail, serve half the period and walk away, those days are over," he said.
"Protecting the public from serious and dangerous offenders I regard as my number one policy. That is absolutely crucial and that is why I feel so strongly about this legislation and taking it through."
The minister added that later this month a draft bill will be released for a 60 day consultation period, passed through Westminster by February or March and implemented by May.
"We are looking at gearing up for devolution of policing and justice by May of next year, and I would hope to not only have this bill on the statute book but also have those powers commenced before that period," he commented.
Mr Goggins defended the length of time it will take for the new laws to be implemented, saying it is important to make sure the legislation is drafted properly.
He continued: "There is nothing worse than acting in haste to legislate and then finding the actual provisions do not work properly.
"I don't apologise for that (the delay) because as a minister it is important that I make sure the bill is well drafted and will actually do the job."
He added: "I know people want these powers today and I want to do everything I can today to make sure people are protected, but these things take some time."
However, DUP MP Nigel Dodds accused the minister of "dragging his heels" .
He said: "It is essential that the bill is watertight, but I have to say I do not think it takes 18 months to ensure that is the case.
"The law was changed in the rest of the UK and with overwhelming support in Northern Ireland from all sections of the community - as seen by the Belfast Telegraph's campaign - there was no cause for further delay as far as consultation is concerned."
He added: "When the notion takes them it is amazing how quickly the Government can act - just look at inheritance tax and capital gains tax.
"While it is good we finally have a date to end 50% remission for the most dangerous people in our society, too much time has been lost."
The new laws, which will see a major shake up in many aspects of criminal justice in Northern Ireland, are expected to cost around £20m over three years to implement.
It had been feared that the abolition of 50% remission would place pressure on the prison estates in terms of overcrowding.
However, the Minister said he is confident that, for the foreseeable future, there are sufficient places.
Mr Goggins also insisted that any dangerous offenders entitled to remission will "be stringently managed within the community".