Making Sense of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997

Date01 March 1998
Publication Date01 March 1998
AuthorRalph Henham
Making Sense of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997
Ralph Henham*
The Crime (Sentences) Act 19971received the Royal Assent on 21 March 1997, the
day Parliament was prorogued prior to the General Election on 1 May. Being
conceived during a highly politicised era, the Act was the product of a series of
reluctant compromises forced on the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, during the
last stages of the Conservative administration. In essence, the then Labour opposition
agreed to support seventeen Government Bills in return for his agreement to retain a
House of Lords amendment to the Crime (Sentences) Bill giving judges discretion
not to impose mandatory minimum sentences on domestic burglars and Class A drug
traffickers in specified circumstances. The Act did not have immediate effect and
contained no dates for its implementation.2As it stands, the Act is, by common
consent,3the most profoundly unsatisfactory piece of populist sentencing legislation
for many years. Nevertheless, for reasons as yet unclear,4the incoming Labour
government has chosen to implement most of the Act’s provisions within the next
few months. The Government’s intentions were revealed by the new Home
Secretary, Jack Straw, in a Parliamentary Written Answer on 30 July 1997 and many
of the provisions were brought into force with effect from 1 October 1997.5In
addition to examining some of the Act’s more controversial provisions, this note
focuses on two important issues arising from the legislation. First, it analyses the
ßThe Modern Law Review Limited 1998 (MLR 61:2, March). Published by Blackwell Publishers,
108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA. 223
*Nottingham Law School.
This note is based on a paper presented to the SPTL Criminal Justice Section at the annual conference in
Warwick in September 1997. The author would like to thank the participants at that meeting for their
helpful comments.
1 Hereinafter referred to as ‘the Act’. Proposed changes to the Act contained in the Crime and Disorder
Bill 1997 are not discussed in this note.
2 However, the White Paper which preceded the Act, Protecting the Public: The Government’s Strategy
on Crime in England and Wales, Cm 3190 (London: HMSO, 1996) para 13.7 envisaged imple-
mentation of proposals for automatic life sentences for serious violent and sex offenders and
mandatory minimum sentences for drug traffickers in October 1997, and the remaining proposals for
honesty in sentencing and minimum sentences for domestic burglars in October 1999.
3 The merits and demerits of the proposals have been debated at length in the academic literature and
elsewhere since their announcement at the 1995 Conservative Party Conference and the publication of
the White Paper, n 2 above, which preceded the Act. See, for example, Henham ‘Back to the Future
on Sentencing: The 1996 White Paper’ (1996) 59 MLR 861 and ‘Anglo-American Approaches to
Cumulative Sentencing and the Implications for UK Sentencing Policy’ (1997) 36 Howard Journal of
Criminal Justice 261; Ashworth ‘Proposals for Major Sentencing Changes’ [1996] CLR 365 and
‘Changes in Sentencing Law’ [1997] CLR 1: Thomas, ‘The White Paper’ (1996) 2 Sentencing News
6; ‘Honesty in Sentencing’ (1997) 1 Sentencing News 11, ‘Crime (Sentences) Act 1997’ and
‘Viewpoint’ (1997) 2 Sentencing News 6–12, ‘Viewpoint’ (1997) 3 Sentencing News 11–12.
4 These issues are explored in a wider context by Brownlee ‘New Labour, new penology?’ Unpublished
paper presented at the SPTL annual conference, University of Warwick, September 1997.
5 HC Deb. Written Answers cols 261–262 30 July 1997. The Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 (Commence-
ment No 2 and Transitional Provisions) Order 1997 S I 1997 No 2200 brought (inter alia) the
following provisions of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 into force with effect from 1 October 1997; s
1 (conditions relating to mandatory and minimum custodial sentences), s 2 mandatory life sentence
for second serious offence) and s 3 (minimum of seven years for third class A drug trafficking
offence). A comprehensive analysis of the Commencement Order appears in (1997) Sentencing News.
Supplement to Issue 3, 1–12.

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