Rapists and arsonists freed after Home Office blunder


Last updated at 00:03 02 March 2007

Sixteen of the country's most dangerous criminals - including rapists and arsonists - have been freed from jail because of a Home Office blunder.

Ministers admitted some of the criminals, who also include muggers and violent attackers, still pose a "potential risk" to the public.

The 16 include self-confessed 'firestarter' Paul Stellato, sentenced to ten years for arson with intent to endanger life in 1998 after almost killing the family of a former girlfriend.

Stellato and the other 15 are being freed because judges ruled the Home Office wrongly imprisoned them after misinterpreting its own legislation. All can sue the bungling department for compensation of up to £30,000 each.

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said: "Yet again the public are being put at risk by another Government shambles. How much longer must the public pay the price of the Government's incompetence with their own safety?"

The convicts - the Home Office is refusing to name the other 15 - had been released previously but recalled to jail for breaching their licence terms.

Last year, the Appeal Court ruled that this recall was unlawful. Now the Law Lords have refused Home Secretary John Reid permission to appeal against this ruling - allowing the men to walk free. The mistake centred on Ministers wrongly interpreting a change to sentencing rules made by the Home Office in April 2005.

Until that point, criminals sentenced to four years or more in jail were entitled to be considered for release at the halfway point.

They then had to remain on licence until their sentence reached the three-quarter stage, when all supervision and conditions of release were lifted.

In 2005, under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the rules changed so that criminals given four years or more could be released at the halfway stage but had to remain on licence for their entire jail term.

The Home Office's blunder was to apply this rule change retrospectively to the 16 convicts, who were sentenced under the old regime. All were freed from jail at the correct time but then recalled after their sentences had passed the three-quarter stage.

The court effectively ruled that, as they should not have still been under licence, it was unlawful to send them back to prison. In a statement, the Home Office said it was "disappointed" by the decision.

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