Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

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A Smarter Approach to Sentencing: the Government’s White Paper, 2020

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Devising effective sentencing policy is hard. Ministers are often under great political pressures to deal with matters of public concern, which leads to frequent changes in sentencing law. This in turn can make the law hard to find and apply. The Sentencing Act 2020 is about to get the Royal Assent. Once in force it will provide a Code – an uptodate framework available online – within which new policies and changes to the law can be set.

Even before the ink has dried on the new Code, changes are in the pipeline. The Counter Terrorism and Sentencing Bill 2020 is well on its way through the Parliament ary process. (See https://martinpartington.com/2020/07/22/counter-terrorism-and-sentencing-bill-2020/)

More radical change is now promised by the White Paper on Sentencing, A Smarter Approach to Sentencing, published in September 2020.

It is a substantial document – reflecting a number of commitments made by the Conservative party in its election manifesto 2019 – on which the Government will be consulting over the next 12 months. A Bill is not anticipated until 2021.

The White Paper states that it is seeking to address three issues of public concern:

  1. Automatic Release: Sentences passed by judges and magistrates in the courts are criticised, often not for their overall length, but for the shortness of the time offenders actually spend in custody. The blanket use of automatic early release has, in the Government’s view, undermined confidence in the system. Too many serious and dangerous offenders are still released too early from custody; this risks public safety, and means the time spent in prison does not always properly fit the crime. The Counter-Terrorism Bill mentioned above deals with some of the issues; the White Paper argues for a more general policy to apply to all dangerous offenders, not just terrorists.
  2. Improving Confidence: Confidence in non-custodial sentencing options is low. The Government wants to gain greater confidence in the delivery of community sentencing. This is essential to reduce the prison population. Sentencers and the public need to be sure that there are effective non-custodial options, particularly for low-level offenders. The Government also wants to ensure that a wider range of non-custodial sentencing options are available to the courts, by capitalising fully on Electronic Monitoring technology, alongside enhanced community supervision delivered by a reformed National Probation Service and an expanded use of existing non-custodial conditions.
  3. Addressing the Causes of Offending: The Government wants to do more to address the causes of offending, particularly where it is driven by drug and alcohol misuse. In 2018/19, 28% of men and 42% of women entering prison reported having a drug problem. These issues are associated with offending, particularly low-level, repeat offending. Whilst there have been routes available to help treat and manage these needs in the justice system, as well as mental health needs, there have been too few options available to sentencers, and not enough confidence in the quality of these services.

The changes proposed in the White Paper are numerous. They include:

1. Introducing whole life orders for child killers, as well as allowing judges to hand out this maximum punishment to 18-20-year olds in exceptional cases to reflect the gravity of a crime. For example, acts of terrorism which lead to mass loss of life.

2. Introducing new powers to halt the automatic release of offenders who pose a terrorist threat or are a danger to the public.

3. Reducing the opportunities for over 18s who committed murder as a child, to have their minimum term reviewed – ensuring they cannot game the system and torment victims’ families further.

4. Ending the halfway release of offenders sentenced to between four and seven years in prison for serious crimes such as rape, manslaughter and GBH with intent. The Government proposes that they should have to spend two-thirds of their time behind bars.

5. Increasing the starting point for determining sentences for 15-17 year olds who commit murder from a minimum of 12 years to two thirds of the equivalent starting point for adults.This would ensure that the seriousness of the offence is taken into account and there is less of a gap between older children and young adults.

6. Longer tariffs for discretionary life sentences. Increasing the minimum period that must be spent in prison by requiring judges to base their calculation of the tariff on what two-thirds of an equivalent determinate sentence would be, rather than half as they do now. This will mean life sentence prisoners serve longer in prison before they can be considered for release by the Parole Board.

7. Raising the threshold for passing a sentence below the minimum term for repeat offenders, including key serious offences such as “third strike” burglary which carries a minimum three-year custodial sentence and “two strike” knife possession which has a minimum six-month sentence for adults. The should make it less likely that a court will depart from these minimum terms.

8. Piloting Problem Solving Court models in up to five courts, targeted at repeat offenders who would otherwise have been sent to custody.

9. Making full use of tagging technologies to create a tough restrictive order in the community. To support rehabilitation, courts and probation staff will have greater flexibility to impose curfew orders.

10. Piloting new ways of delivering timely and high-quality Pre-Sentence Reports.

11. Introducing new legislation to create the possibility of life sentences for drivers who kill.

12. Doubling the maximum sentence for assaulting an emergency worker from 12 months to 2 years.

The White Paper also proposes reforming criminal records disclosure to reduce the time period in which offenders have to declare offences to employers.

The full details of the White Paper are at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/a-smarter-approach-to-sentencing

This entry is adapted from the Government Press Release: at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/radical-sentencing-overhaul-to-cut-crime

Written by lwtmp

October 9, 2020 at 5:08 pm