Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Posts Tagged ‘sentencing

Reforming prisons

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One of the most intractable issues in the criminal justice system is enabling prisons do more to try to draw offenders away from a life of crime and to become more productive and engaged citizens.

In the Queen’s Speech, delivered on 18 May 2016, the announcement of a new Prisons Bill was made. The details are not yet available but at the heart of the reforms are proposals to significantly improve educational opportunities for inmates – and to give Prison Governors more autonomy over how they run their prisons.

Accompanying the text of the Queen’s speech was an announcement that in the short-term 6 pilot ‘trailblazer’ reform prisons would be established to test the effectiveness of new approaches. The intention is that 5000 prisoners should be in the reform prisons by the end of 2016.

The importance of education of prisoners was emphasise in a review, published at the same time by Dame Sally Coates.

For further (preliminary) information on reform prisons see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/biggest-shake-up-of-prison-system-announced-as-part-of-queens-speech

The Coates report can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/unlocking-potential-a-review-of-education-in-prison

The big challenge, noted by many commentators, is how such reforms can be made effective given the large numbers of people currently detained in prison. Many think that it will be essential for numbers in jail to be reduced if those who would really benefit from the reform proposals are to be helped.

 

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Written by lwtmp

May 20, 2016 at 5:56 pm

Bringing coherence to sentencing: proposals from the Law Commission

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There is a huge volume of law relating to the sentences courts may impose on those found guilt of committing criminal offences.

Indeed, there is so much that judges often take decisions that, in law, they are not allowed to make. To quote from a recent announcement from the Law Commission:

A survey of 400 Court of Appeal cases from 2012 by the sentencing expert Robert Banks found that 262 were appeals against sentences and that of these, 76 included sentences that had been unlawfully passed in the Crown Court. Banks wrote, “[This] figure shows that we can no longer say the sentencing system is working properly. Cases since then have indicated that these figures are not unrepresentative.”

Currently, the law lacks coherence and clarity: it is spread across many statutes, and frequent updates are brought into force at different times by different statutory instruments and with a variety of transitional arrangements. This makes it difficult, if not impossible for practitioners and the courts to understand what the present law of sentencing procedure actually is. This can lead to delays, costly appeals and unlawful sentences.

The Law Commission is currently engaged in a project designed to introduce a single sentencing statute that will act as the first and only port of call for sentencing tribunals.

It will set out the relevant provisions in a clear and logical way, and ensure that all updates to sentencing procedure can be found in a single place. It is not the aim of this project to interfere with mandatory minimum sentences or with sentencing tariffs in general. Those will remain entirely untouched, but the process by which they come to be imposed will be streamlined and much improved.

The latest stage in the process has recently taken place with the publication on 20 May 2016 of a paper setting out proposals for the transition from the current position to a reformed position.

The amount of work still to be undertaken is enormous, and will not be effective for at least two more year – perhaps longer. But this is a project of great importance not just to criminal lawyers, but all those interested in the criminal justice system.

For an outline of the progress on work to date go to http://www.lawcom.gov.uk/project/sentencing-code/

 

Written by lwtmp

May 20, 2016 at 5:27 pm

The treasure in the heart of man – making prisons work

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The new Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove, is turning out to be a very interesting appointment. Following his speech on his vision for the justice system, (see this blog 23 June 2015), he has now given a truly remarkable lecture on how prisons might be made to work more effectively in helping to rehabilitate offenders and leading them to play a constructive role in society.

Taking his inspiration from Winston Churchill, who once said ‘There is a treasure, if only you can find it, in the heart of every man’ he has noted that education must be at the heart of the prison experience.

To be fair, his predecessor said something very similar; but then went on to ban books being available to prisoners, which seemed, at the least, to be counter-productive.

Michael Gove, pursuing interested he had as Secretary of State for Education, has returned to the same theme.

At present, Gove noted

45% of adult prisoners re-offend within one year of release. For those prisoners serving shorter sentences – those of less than twelve months – the figure rises to 58%. And, saddest of all, more than two-thirds of offenders under the age of 18 re-offend within twelve months of release.

Referring to the characteristics of those in prison, he said:

Prisoners come – disproportionately – from backgrounds where they were deprived of proper parenting, where the home they first grew up in was violent, where they spent time in care, where they experienced disrupted and difficult schooling, where they failed to get the qualifications necessary to succeed in life and where they got drawn into drug-taking.

Three quarters of young offenders had an absent father, one third had an absent mother, two-fifths have been on the child protection register because they were at risk of abuse and neglect.

  • 41% of prisoners observed domestic violence as a child
  • 24% of prisoners were taken into care as children. That compares with just 2% of the general population
  • 42% of those leaving prison had been expelled from school when children compared to 2% of general population
  • 47% have no school qualifications at all – not one single GCSE – this compares to 15% of the working age general population
  • Between 20 and 30% of prisoners have learning difficulties or disabilities and 64% have used Class A drugs

His answer to this is to try to ensure that there is much more ‘purposeful activity’ in prisons so that prisoners are helped to fill in some of the gaps in their education and upbringing.

Gove continued:

In prisons there is a – literally – captive population whose inability to read properly or master basic mathematics makes them prime candidates for re-offending. Ensuring those offenders become literate and numerate makes them employable and thus contributors to society, not a problem for our communities. Getting poorly-educated adults to a basic level of literacy and numeracy is straightforward, if tried and tested teaching models are followed, as the armed forces have demonstrated. So the failure to teach our prisoners a proper lesson is indefensible.

In this context, Gove proposes that prisoners should be required to earn early release from prison by showing they have participated in and learned from appropriate educational opportunities. He want to down play, even abolish, the automatic release of prisoners halfway through their sentences – a practice which he says means that sentences imposed by judges hardly ever mean what they purport to say.

It is not clear how far detailed policy work has been undertaken to bring this vision into effect – it seems likely that it would be a policy that would require significant additional resources, even if in the long run savings could be made through the reduction It may therefore be easier said than done. But as a goal for the prison system to aim for, it makes a lot of sense.

To read the whole speech go to https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-treasure-in-the-heart-of-man-making-prisons-work

Written by lwtmp

August 3, 2015 at 9:55 am

Increasing sentencing powers of magistrates

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In the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, 2012, provision was made (section 85) to give magistrates greater flexibility in the fines that they may impose. Offences are divided into 5 levels – the least serious are level 1 offences, the most serious level 5. Up to now, the maximum fine for level 5 offences has generally been £5000 (although there are special circumstances where the maximum is set at a higher level). Regulations have now been made and brought into force (15 March 2015) whereby, for offences which attract a level 5 sentence, magistrates now have power to impose fines without any cap being imposed.

This will mean that in cases where magistrates want to impose higher fines for level 5 offences, they will no longer have to send cases to the Crown Court for sentence.

Magistrates who want to impose a prison sentence of more than 6 months still have to commit such cases to the Crown Court for sentencing.

The fact that magistrates in future will have increased sentencing powers will not mean that they will automatically be increasing their sentences; indeed this is likely to happen in only a small number of the most serious cases.

The Sentencing Council gives detailed guidance on the appropriate amount of fines to be imposed within each level . These relate both to the seriousness of the offence and the means available to the defendant. See

http://www.sentencingcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/MCSG_web_-_October_2014.pdf
For Ministerial statement see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/unlimited-fines-for-serious-offences

Written by lwtmp

May 4, 2015 at 11:09 am