UK

Prison sentences: Plans 'to encourage' early guilty pleas

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New sentencing guidelines intended to encourage earlier guilty pleas are to be consulted on in England and Wales.

The Sentencing Council says a sentence reduction of a third must only be given to those who plead guilty the first time they enter a plea. Currently, defendants must plead at first "reasonable opportunity".

It said the proposals would spare more victims the trauma of a trial.

The Ministry of Justice said no decisions had been made.

Currently defendants can have their sentence reduced by up to a third if they plead guilty at the "first reasonable opportunity", which has been open to interpretation by different judges.

Under the new proposals, they will have to plead guilty the first time they are asked for their plea in court to receive this reduction.

The maximum reduction for those who admit guilt after this would also be reduced from 25% to 20%.

Under the new draft guidelines, the sliding scale for sentencing reductions would be:

  • One-third - for an offender who offers a guilty plea the first time he or she is asked in a court
  • One-fifth - the maximum available to someone who pleads guilty at a later opportunity but before the first day of the trial - the current maximum reduction in those circumstances is one-quarter
  • One-tenth - the maximum for anyone who changes to a guilty plea on day one of their trial
  • Zero - for any offender who waits until part-way through a trial to plead guilty

No reduction in sentence would be offered to someone pleading guilty to murder where the judge determines they should receive a whole life jail term.

'Incentive not reward'

The requirement that courts should take into account a guilty plea in deciding what sentence an offender should get is a long-standing principle set out in law by Parliament.

The council said the new guidelines provided "a much tighter framework" and "much less scope for offenders to 'play the system' and still receive the maximum discount".

"There is an understandable reluctance to provide those who are guilty with a 'reward' for pleading guilty, especially when they have little or no prospect of being acquitted," it said.

"However, it is important to recognise that the guilty plea reduction is in place to provide an incentive and not a reward.

"For it to work effectively, it is important that it is a clear and unqualified incentive to the defendant."


Analysis

BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman

Not everyone agrees that reducing sentences for those who plead guilty is a good thing, but the law builds this discount of sentences into the criminal justice system.

The reasons are straightforward.

Guilty pleas spare victims and witnesses the stress of a trial, and free up police, prosecutors and courts for other cases. They also save public money.

The significant change in today's proposal is the creation of a greater incentive for defendants to plead guilty at the first court hearing.

The current maximum one third reduction in sentence stays for those who plead at that point.

But the reduction in sentence is lowered if someone pleads guilty later on in the process.

For those who plead after that first stage the maximum reduction will be 20%, down from the current 25%.

Reductions continue to drop the closer to the trial date the plea is entered.

The great prize is efficiency and certainty.

Removing cases at an early stage means they don't gum up the system and affect timetabling.

This gives victims and witnesses in contested cases clarity and a far higher degree of certainty as to when their case will be heard.


Chairman Lord Justice Treacy said: "We want those who have committed crimes to admit their guilt as early as possible.

"When they do, it means victims and witnesses can be reassured that the offender has accepted responsibility for what they have done and that they are spared having to appear at court to testify.

"It also means that the police and Crown Prosecution Service can use their resources more efficiently to investigate and prosecute other cases."

'Vulnerable' defendants

The council stressed that nothing in the new guidelines "should be taken to suggest that an accused person who is not guilty of an offence should be pressured to plead guilty".

Mark Fenhalls QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said "clarity and consistency" in sentencing was welcome, but flexibility was also vital.

"There has to be a proper balance between the interests of the public, victims and the rights of defendants to fair process, without undue pressure being placed on defendants who are often vulnerable.

"Defendants who plead guilty early must always receive more credit than those who game the system. But guidelines must not become straitjackets that prevent judges from making the right decision in individual cases."

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "The changes in the consultation would lead to stricter sentences as those pleading guilty later in the process will get a smaller reduction.

"There would be no change to the reduction for those pleading guilty at the earliest point in the process.

"Following the spending review, there is no financial need to cut prison numbers over the next five years. Protecting the public will always be our top priority."

The Sentencing Council was set up by Parliament to promote consistency in sentencing while maintaining the independence of the judiciary.

It recommends sentences according to the relative seriousness of different offences, and the seriousness of the offender's behaviour relative to that of others convicted of the same crime.

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