Harsher terrorism prison sentences are needed to deal with a “new category of terrorist” who quickly plans and executes deadly but unsophisticated attacks, a major body has said.
The attacks in Westminster, Manchester Arena and London Bridge showed terrorists “are taking less time to prepare”, something that current sentencing guidelines are not set-up to deal with, the Sentencing Council said in a report on Thursday.
Its proposals are due to replace a set of guidelines set out by the Court of Appeal last year, which focus more on “big plot” cases involving large groups conspiring to carry out sophisticated attacks that took months or years to plan, the council said.
“The guidelines need to be able to punish those who have spent less time preparing an act of terrorism, but intend to cause great harm. They need to reflect the changing nature of terrorism,” a council spokesman told HuffPost.
“Over the last year there have been five significant acts of terrorism in the UK (Westminster, Manchester Arena, London Bridge, Finsbury Park and Parsons Green tube), and similar acts in other countries,” the council said, setting out its new guidance.
“These acts have showed that offenders are taking less time to prepare, and their acts are less sophisticated but are equally as deadly.
“Offenders are more frequently using knives and vehicles as weapons, which are readily available, so involve limited or no preparation to obtain.”
Its guidance, which would bind judges if introduced, proposes people caught preparing terror acts be categorised by their individual culpability within the plot and the harm it threatened to cause.
“The [new sentencing guideline] needs to ensure that the new category of terrorists is covered, as they are equally intent on causing significant loss of life and terror to members of the public but are using quicker, less sophisticated methods to achieve it,” the council added.
Between 2006 and 2016, 90 people were convicted of preparing terrorist acts under Section Five of the Terrorism Act. A total of 81 were jailed for an average of six years.
The existing guidance from the Court of Appeal already suggests life imprisonment for terrorists deemed the most dangerous. The council’s new guidance raises the sentences for those caught at the lower end of the scale.
Those with the least involvement in the least harmful plots would receive a minimum of three years’ in prison, up from the 21 months the Court of Appeal guidance prescribes.
Those who are the least culpable in the deadliest plots would receive at least 10 years while the most culpable in the least harmful plots would receive at least 12.
Sentencing Council chairman Lord Justice Treacy said: “We want to ensure that courts have comprehensive guidance for dealing with these extremely serious cases.
“Offences vary greatly and could include someone who tries to make a bomb, another who urges others to join a terrorist organisation or a group plotting a murderous attack on the public.
“Our proposed guidelines set out a clear approach to dealing with this wide range of offences to ensure appropriate sentences are passed to punish offenders and disrupt their activities.”
The guidelines also recommend a minimum sentence for those who encourage terrorism, including those who make or disseminate statements encouraging terrorism, such as posts on social media or publications distributed by terror groups.
Between 2006 and 2016, 29 people were sentenced for these offences and 25 received immediate prison sentences.
The council said its guidance reflected “growing concern about the availability of extremist material online, which can lead to people becoming self-radicalised”.
A spokesman said: “In the current climate where a terrorist act could be planned in a very short time using readily available items such as vehicles and knives as weapons, combined with online extremist material that normalises terrorist activity and provides encouragement, these offences are more serious than they have previously been perceived.”
The consultation on the guidelines will last six weeks, after which a final version of them will be drawn up to come into force in courts in the spring.
Justice Minister Dominic Raab said: “These new guidelines will help ensure we have the most rigorous and robust sentencing in terrorism cases.”
The Crown Prosecution Service said it would respond to the consultation “in due course”.