New early plea guidelines from Sentencing Council
Changes to the guilty plea sentencing guidelines mean we could need another 4,000 prison places costing another £120 million.
The report was produced in response to a draft guideline recently put out for public consultation by the Sentencing Council (the consultation closed on 5 May 2016) and the justice secretary, Michael Gove, has also signalled his concern at the revised scheme.
The guideline has a clear rationale and is designed to incentivise defendants who are going to plead guilty to do so as early as possible in the court process. The Council explains that this normally reduces the impact of the crime upon victims; saves victims and witnesses from having to testify; and saves public time and money on investigations and trial. The incentive to plead guilty as early as possible is provided by maintaining the current level of reduction for a plea at the first stage of court proceedings, with a lower level of reduction thereafter compared to the level that is currently available.
The main difference from the existing system is that the point at which an offender can benefit from the maximum (one-third) reduction will be much more tightly defined; to qualify, they must plead guilty at ‘the first stage of proceedings’ – that is, the first time they are asked for their plea in court. In contrast, the current guideline requires the offender to plead guilty ‘at the first reasonable opportunity’.
The Committee argues that introducing stricter guidelines designed to persuade defendants to plead guilty earlier in the court process could have a perverse impact and encourage more to go to full trial.
Concerns about miscarriages of justice
The Committee was particularly struck by the submission to the Sentencing Council’s consultation from the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). This highlights the fact that a significant proportion (26.7%, based on a sample of CCRC applications over the past three years) of those who apply for a review of their guilty conviction had entered a guilty plea. The CCRC observed that systemic and personal pressures to plead guilty are capable of extending to the factually innocent, as well as the factually guilty, and goes on to suggest that this may be a particular problem for vulnerable groups such as those with mental health conditions.
Impact on vulnerable defendants
The Committee also expresses concern that the changes may also adversely affect those with mental health problems and the increasing number of unrepresented defendants going through the criminal justice system.
It recommends that the Sentencing Council should undertake a comprehensive equality impact analysis, and consider how to mitigate any adverse impacts relating to defendants with protected characteristics including learning disabilities, autism and mental health conditions.
More research and consideration needed
The Committee recommends that the Sentencing Council delay the finalisation and implementation of the new guideline until it has undertaken and published further research into the factors that influence a defendant’s decision about whether and when to plead guilty, both in the magistrates’ court and the crown court.
Bob Neill MP, the Conservative chair of the committee, concluded:
There has not been enough research to assess the possible impact on prisons and other aspects of the criminal justice system. The Sentencing Council should conduct further research into the factors that influence a defendant’s decision to plead guilty, to inform a more comprehensive and robust reassessment of the draft guideline, taking into account costs and savings to all aspects of the criminal justice system, especially the prison population.