Sentencing guidelines and Parliament: building a bridge - Justice Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations


1.  Our experience of scrutinising sentencing guidelines to date has made it clear to us that there are key areas that require much closer consideration in both the development and scrutiny of sentencing guidelines. First is the cost of different sentences and their relative effectiveness, in other words what works in terms of achieving the purposes of sentencing. Second is the need to promote public confidence in the criminal justice system. We identify these as priorities for future scrutiny of sentencing guidelines; at the same time we explore some of the difficulties in embedding these principles in the development of sentencing guidelines. (Paragraph 4)

Democratic and Judicial Voices

2.  Parliament sets the framework for sentencing in legislation. Sentencing guidelines are a key element to how this legislation works in practice. It is vital that Parliament, representing the public voice, contributes to sentencing guidelines as they are produced and in doing so identifies the crucial issues of public confidence and the effectiveness of sentencing. We are convinced this is compatible with safeguarding the crucial discretion of sentencers to impose a sentence tailored to the individual case. (Paragraph 44)

3.  We are concerned that, all too often, political debates about sentencing descend into a counter-productive competition as to who can appear toughest on crime, measured by sentence length. A select committee works on the basis of consensus and we are less likely to fall foul of the temptation to 'out-tough' each other in our consideration of sentencing guidelines or to confuse length of sentence with effectiveness. (Paragraph 45)

4.  On the basis of our experience with sentencing guidelines, we have found that a spotlight on an individual sentencing guideline can illuminate broader concerns and issues in relation to the criminal justice system. We will continue to review sentencing guidelines in the wider context, seeking thereby to enhance the quality of scrutiny of criminal justice policy and legislation. This is an entirely different process from judgments on individual cases. (Paragraph 46)

The crucial elements for scrutiny

5.  The five aims of sentencing set out in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 are neither internally coherent nor consistently applied. It is not clear whether the aims are intended to be a hierarchical list or a menu to be combined differently in different cases. It is not clear how the purposes of sentencing relate to, or should be reflected in, sentencing guidelines. As a result, the public, criminal justice organisations, victims, sentencers and the Government all have different expectations as to what sentencing is trying to achieve—suggesting that someone, inevitably, will be disappointed. (Paragraph 66)

6.  It is set out in statute that sentencing guidelines should be drawn up with regard to the cost of different sentences and their relative effectiveness. This does not conflict with the duty of the sentencer to determine the sentence appropriate to the individual case. We acknowledge that this is made difficult by the lack of clarity as to the purposes of sentencing, because there is no clear and consensual standard as to how effectiveness should be determined. However, this aspect must have greater prominence in the development of sentencing guidelines. We will therefore prioritise it for scrutiny. (Paragraph 67)

7.  We are convinced by the evidence that public attitudes towards sentences change depending on whether people are asked abstract questions about leniency or given details of a situation and asked about the appropriate sentence. When given enough information to understand a sentence, people support sentencing at a level similar to current sentencing practice. We conclude that sentencing policy should not be determined on the presumption that the public find current sentencing too lenient. Public confidence would be better served by ensuring and then demonstrating that sentencing is effective in preventing people from being victims of crime in the future. (Paragraph 80)

8.  Even if more people are sent to prison for longer, people will not necessarily be convinced that sentences are in fact increasing in length. It is also not necessarily what the public wants. Pursuing a sentencing policy based on a misconception of what people want is not intelligent, appropriate or sustainable. More worryingly, it may result in more people being victims of crime in the future and less confidence in the criminal justice system. (Paragraph 81)

9.  It has been a settled principle of the development of sentencing guidelines for over a decade that their formulation should have regard to the cost of different sentences and their relative effectiveness in preventing re-offending and the need to promote public confidence in the criminal justice system. In our experience, these aspects are both crucial and difficult to capture. We will therefore continue to pursue these aspects in our work on sentencing guidelines. (Paragraph 82)

10.  Sentencing policy needs to consider not only the cost of sentencing, but its cost effectiveness, measured in terms of its ability to prevent people from being victims of more crimes in the future. At the same time, sentencing policy and sentencing in individual cases are influenced by the public's entirely understandable wish to have an outcome from a conviction which recognises the level of seriousness with which society regards such a crime. This statement of seriousness and disapproval is almost always seen as something which can only be achieved by a prison sentence, or by a longer custodial sentence than for other crimes with which it is compared. Newspaper reports of trials, often including interviews with victims' families, frequently attest that the sentence was not long enough, or should have been custodial rather than community-based, without regard to whether the custodial or longer sentence would be more effective—or at all effective—in preventing further crimes after release. This problem will continue to have a powerful effect on public confidence in sentencing, and on the response of sentencers, unless ways can be found of combining within a sentence a clear signal as to the seriousness of the offence and a rational assessment of how effective the sentence will be in preventing further crimes. We intend to give this issue further consideration in our forthcoming report on Justice Reinvestment. (Paragraph 83)

11.  The added value we can bring by reviewing sentencing guidelines is hampered by the poor standard of information available on the costs of different sentences and on measures of effectiveness of different sentences. It is unacceptable that basic information such as what factors led to a particular sentence being imposed in a particular case is not collected and made available. We recommend that the Government as a matter of urgency commit to identifying information on sentencing that is crucial and put in place a structured plan to collect and publish this data. (Paragraph 84)

12.  We welcome therefore the provisions for information collection, analysis and dissemination in the proposals for a new Sentencing Council for England and Wales. However, we are worried that in practice, such issues may turn out to be peripheral considerations for the Sentencing Council. The Government has demonstrated, as detailed in our report Towards Effective Sentencing, an inability to ensure that sentencing policies are resourced so that they may be effectively implemented. We are concerned that, as one example, the impact assessment for the Sentencing Council ignores costs that may be incurred by the judiciary. We recommend that the Government ensures that structures for data collection on sentencing are adequately resourced both at a national and local level. (Paragraph 85)

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