Dehenna speaking on sentencing and early release

Mr Deputy Speaker,

I thank you for the opportunity to talk on this most important of debates.

Out there, Mr Deputy Speaker, there are countless victims of some of the most serious crimes. Rape victims. GBH victims. The families and loved ones of manslaughter victims. My family and I fall into that latter category, Mr Speaker, as I have previously mentioned in this place.

In my case, a line from Lois McMaster Bujold’s 2002 novel sticks with me

“The dead cannot cry out for justice. It is a duty of the living to do so for them.”

It is our duty, Mr Deputy Speaker, to ensure that justice is done for the victims of the most heinous crimes. And for those victims, and the families of those victims, it can be difficult to feel that justice can ever be served in an appropriate and proportionate way. That is why sentencing is so crucially important.

I can remember sitting in court at age 14, listening intently to proceedings. If I thought I had nervous butterflies on election night, they were nothing compared to what I felt when the verdict was delivered.

In the road to recovery from a severe criminal court case, the delivery of the verdict is the first hurdle.

For victims and families who do hear a guilty verdict, the second hurdle to recovery is the delivery of a sentence.

Where a sentence feels too lenient, it can leave a victim or family feeling lost, drifting, with justice not having been done, and no way to move on. We must always support victims by ensuring the sentences that are delivered are proportionate and sufficiently serious to act as a deterrent for potential future offenders.

The third hurdle to recovery, Mr Deputy Speaker, is the one this debate is focussed on, and that is the point at which the sentenced perpetrator is released from prison.

I still remember the day my Nan saw my Dad’s killer for the first time. He had been serving a 3 year sentence, and was out of prison within 18 months. I remember all too well the anger, frustration, confusion, and grief that flashed across her face, especially as he raised a glass to her as we drove by him. It is something I will never forget.

This is an experience shared by far too many, Mr Deputy Speaker, with victims feeling severely let down by the current automatic halfway release point.

After all, what is the purpose of a prison sentence, Mr Speaker? There are several.

The first, is to protect the public from the offender.

The second, is to ensure victims feel that justice has been done.

A serious offender serving half a sentence does not provide victims and victims’ families with that sense of justice.

The third, Mr Speaker, is to act as a deterrent for future offences. But the existing automatic halfway release gives a certain sense of leniency, which does not act as a deterrent in the way in which is should.

The fourth and final purpose of a prison sentence is to provide an environment in which offenders can be rehabilitated. For serious offences, it is not perverse to assume that such rehabilitation could be a lengthy and complex process.

By ending the automatic halfway release from prison, these changes will also ensure the most serious offenders have more time with specialist support in prison to rehabilitate them and prepare them for release into the community. Of course, they will still be subject to strict conditions upon their release.

In the manifesto we were elected on with a substantial mandate, we vowed that we would introduce tougher sentencing for the worst offenders.

As other colleagues have expressed today, I too had some reservations about moving the goalpost from automatic release at the halfway point to the two-thirds point. For some victims, this may not be enough.

However, I was encouraged to hear the Minister talk about this as a first step that our Government can achieve quickly to begin to deliver on our referendum promise at the soonest possible opportunity, and I will certainly be following the Sentencing White Paper with interest to ensure victims are represented in the legislative process.

So I support this statutory instrument, Mr Deputy Speaker, as a step towards proving to victims that we are on their side.