Although the Government is finally to end its blanket policy of 50% remission, the public has been shocked to learn that eight out of 10 sex offenders will still walk free after serving only half their sentences.
The Government has responded to the Belfast Telegraph campaign that followed the murder of Attracta Harron by a convicted rapist soon after his release after serving half of a seven-year sentence. Northern Ireland is to be brought into line with England and Wales, where judges can hand out public protection sentences to violent offenders, so that they are not released until they are no longer deemed to be a risk to the public.
Both Trevor Hamilton, who murdered Mrs Harron, and Eamon Foley, who raped a 91-year-old who died weeks later, would have qualified for full-length sentences, but many more charged with lesser sex offences will still be freed early, under the new system. There will be more than 100 specified crimes of a violent or sexual nature and, after conviction, offenders will be put in one of two categories. The worst, who would normally receive at least a 10-year sentence, could be given an "indeterminate" sentence, while the rest could be eligible for an "extended" sentence.
Those seeking their freedom - and this would apply to an estimated 15 at present - will have to prove to an independent parole board that they are no longer a risk. Anyone serving an indeterminate sentence will be given a minimum tariff, after which they will have to show they were fit for release, under licence. Under the extended sentence rules, offenders can still be released halfway through their term, but only if it is safe to do so. If offenders re-offend after early release, they must serve their whole sentence, plus up to eight years. The Government's proposals, which will only apply to offences committed after the legislation is passed, will be greeted with muted approval. They will introduce a new, independent test of the worst offenders' eligibility for early release, but they still perpetuate a 50% remission rule that dates back to the worst of the Troubles, when the jails were full to capacity. Too many offenders will still serve derisory sentences.
The scheme, including the parole board, is estimated to cost £20m over three years, which could explain the long delay. In Britain, there is concern not only that it is costing too much, but is leading to prison overcrowding. Here this should not be a problem.
It will be a problem, however, reassuring the public that its worries over automatic remission for sex criminals are best met by improved monitoring and electronic tagging.