A quick one to start the week. I was asked about this last night, and rather hoped that it was obvious on its face that this tale has more to it than the headlines in the local press would have the reader believe. However some of the nationals are now this morning plugging the story of the “child sex gang leader released from prison 17 years early”, so a brief explainer might help.
The story started smouldering last Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Questions, when MP for Telford, Lucy Allan, raised the case in the House of Commons. And in fairness to Ms Allan, her primary concern, entirely properly, was that the victims of serious sexual offending did not appear to have been informed of the perpetrator’s release on licence and his impending return to the local area.
But the story has quickly become, certainly in the national media, another tale of Barmy Soft Sentences, helpfully allied in The Independent to the recently-announced statistics on Attorney General’s References of Unduly Lenient Sentences (see my tweets here for more on this topic). The Shropshire Star yesterday reported, under the headline “Telford sex gang ringleader Mubarek Ali set to be freed early”, that “Telford sex gang ringleader Mubarak Ali was today…preparing to be released just five years into a 22-year jail sentence.” A petition, naturally, has now been launched to “make Ali serve his full sentence”.
Ali, aged 29, was one a number of men convicted in 2012 of offences of child trafficking in the UK and controlling child prostitution in the Telford area. The facts, briefly, relate to the sexual exploitation of four girls aged as young as 13. When sentenced alongside his brother, Ali, then aged 29, was told by the judge that he was “cold hearted and cynical”, presented “significant danger to the public”, and had shown “no remorse or regret”. The total term reportedly handed down was 22 years.
Yet, only 5 years on, Ali is reportedly set to be released.
So what has gone on?
Was 22 years’ imprisonment imposed?
This is the first question to ask – what sentence was actually passed on Ali? The Mirror and The Independent both reported, with no further explanation, that Ali was “sentenced to 22 years in prison”. Which on its face, would appear to make a shocking story. However, had the nationals bothered to read The Shropshire Star’s article before hoovering it up and spitting it out as their own scoop, they would have discovered the all-important context:
“Mubarek Ali, 34, known as Max, was given 22 years, 14 years’ immediate custody and eight years on licence, for seven offences – four of controlling child prostitution and two offences of trafficking in the UK for the purpose of prostitution…Both [Ali and a co-defendant] were made the subject of lifelong Sexual Offences Prevention Orders.”
This is confirmed in the Court of Appeal judgment dismissing Ali’s appeal against conviction in 2014 (H/T James Turner Q.C.) Ali was convicted at Stafford Crown Court on 8 August 2012 of four charges of controlling child prostitution, two charges of trafficking in the UK for sexual exploitation and a charge of causing child prostitution. He was sentenced on 5 October 2012. And the key in the above paragraph is that the total sentence passed was not 22 years’ imprisonment, but what is known as an extended sentence of imprisonment. Where an offender is convicted of a serious violent or sexual offence and is assessed by the court as “dangerous” – the legal test for which is that they present a significant risk of serious harm to the public – one of the sentences available is an extended sentence. This is a sentence made of two parts – it carries the usual custodial term that would be passed, plus an extended period of licence, of up to 8 years (or 5 years in cases of non-sexual violence). The rationale is that this extended licence period gives the Probation Service a lengthier hold over the offender, to ensure he stays on the straight and narrow upon release. If he breaches the terms of his licence, he can be recalled to serve the rest of his sentence, including the licence period. So Ali’s sentence was an extended sentence which totalled 22 years, but, critically, the custodial term is 14 years, not 22 years. If Ali behaves himself, he will never serve the 8-year licence period in custody. This vital context has been entirely omitted from the national reports.
Ok, so it’s 14 years. Why is he out after only 5?
Under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, all offenders sentenced to a standard determinate sentence (e.g. 5 years’ imprisonment) are automatically released at the halfway stage of their sentence. The reason is, again, that it gives the authorities power over defendants and assists reintegration into normal life. It also, on a practical level, acts as a pressure valve to release people from our hideously overcrowded prisons. You may disagree with this approach- a lot of people do – but it is the law that applies to everyone; there’s no special treatment going on.
With extended sentences, it is more complicated. The scheme of “extended sentences” is changed every few years, tweaked by governments and Parliaments vying to show how tough they are on criminals, resulting in a morass of confusing and overlapping laws, with different release provisions applying to different offenders serving effectively the same sentences. As with sentencing in general, it’s a complete legislative mess. But the bottom line is that, at the time that Ali was sentenced in October 2012, his type of extended sentence meant that he was also eligible for automatic release at the halfway stage of his custodial term – so after 7 years. By comparison, had he been sentenced to an actual determinate 22 years’ imprisonment, he would be automatically released at the 11-year mark.
Ok, so it’s 7 years. Why is he out after 5?
As ever, the facts are regrettably not fully reported, but reading between the lines, this was a complicated investigation that took a long time to prosecute and bring to trial. The offences occurred between March 2008 and December 2009. We’ve already seen that Ali was not sentenced until October 2012. It is not clear when he was charged, but there was an initial, aborted trial in September 2011. Cases of this type take at least 6 months, and usually longer, to come to trial.
Why does this matter? Because, buried in the Shropshire Star’s report (and at the end of the Court of Appeal judgment), is a hint that Ali was remanded in custody prior to his trial. And time spent by a defendant in custody awaiting trial counts towards the overall sentence. (This is now automatic; in 2012, the judge would have had to have made an order that the time on remand counted towards sentence, but there appears no reason in this case why the judge would not have done so.) And so, putting our figures together, if there was over a year between the aborted trial in 2011 and the sentence in 2012, and a period of between 6 months and a year between being charged and the first trial in 2011, and Ali was remanded for that entire period, that would give us the roughly 2-years to count towards the 7 year custodial term and bring us down, in effect, to 5 years post-sentence.
So what next?
For those upset that dangerous sex offenders can be released automatically halfway into their sentence, it’s worth noting that the law has since 2012 changed significantly. If Ali were being sentenced to an extended sentence today, he would not be automatically released at any stage. Instead, once he had served two thirds of the custodial term – i.e. just short of 10 years – his case would be referred to the Parole Board, who would have to be satisfied that it was no longer necessary for the protection of the public that he be confined before they directed his release.
For the media, a salutary, but no doubt entirely disregarded, lesson to verify the context of legal stories, either with the lawyers employed in your offices to check these things, or even by approaching some of us grubby legal hacks lurking in the social media gutter. If a story on sentencing appears too ludicrous to be true, it almost certainly is.
As a postscript, the Ministry of Justice has thus far refused to comment. I hope this changes. When misleading reports about criminal justice are bandied about as fact, and when 17,500 members of the public believe that petitions can and should influence independent judicial processes, it should not be left to bloggers to provide a correction.