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Priti Patel’s proposal to double the maximum prison sentence for people convicted of assaulting emergency workers has been criticised as an “admission of failure”.
The home secretary has said she wanted to see those who attack police officers and firefighters face up to two years in jail, an increase from the maximum one year at present.
It comes just two years after the law making assaults on emergency workers a specific offence was brought in.
The chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, which campaigns over the justice system, said that law had not worked and “it won’t work now”, adding that the causes of crime should be tackled instead.
Writing in the Daily Mail, Patel said: “Now more than ever, those on the front line must be able to do their jobs without fear of harassment or physical attack. This Government is committed to doing just that.
“Those who carry out these attacks need to understand the seriousness of their crime.
“That’s why today, we’re announcing a targeted consultation on doubling the maximum sentence for assaults on emergency workers – from 12 months to two years.
“It’s essential that in these horrific cases, a just punishment is handed down.
“Only then can our brave police officers, firefighters, paramedics and prison officers know that, as they go about their jobs, this Government has their back.”
She said she had spoken to a police officer in Wales who had been stabbed in the abdomen while on duty and another from West Yorkshire Police who was coughed at by someone claiming to have the coronavirus.
The government has launched a consultation on the sentencing change.
However, Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “These proposals are an admission of failure.
“Less than two years ago, parliament looked at this issue and voted for longer sentences. Now ministers want to go even further. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now.
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“If the government was serious about protecting emergency services workers, it would stop tinkering with sentences for political expediency and concentrate instead on offering solutions to the bigger issues that drive crime, such as health inequalities, homelessness and a shrinking economy.
“It is time for a new approach. Repeating the mistakes of the past only holds the country back.”
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said 20,000 charges under the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act were prosecuted between November 2018 and 2019.
Three-quarters were cases of alleged assault by beating, while kicking, punching, spitting, head-butting, slapping and biting were also all used to attack the responders, the CPS said.
Nine out of 10 of the cases were against police officers.
The Police Federation said it welcomed the government’s consultation but chairman John Apter added that sentencing must be consistent.
He said: “Assaulting a police officer is completely unacceptable and there must be a suitable deterrent.
“I accept there will always be times where an offender does not receive a custodial sentence. However, this must be the exception and not the norm.”