Leading role or bit part player?
Yesterday (14 December 2020), Transform Justice published a new report by respected veteran criminal justice expert Rob Allen into the role of the Sentencing Council. In the report, “The Sentencing Council and criminal justice: leading role or bit part player?,” Mr Allen questions the efficacy of the Council and argues that it could be doing much more to help develop effective law and sentencing policy and practice, not least in seeking to curb the current rampant inflation in custodial sentencing.
The history and role of the Sentencing Council
Mr Allens writes that the origins of the Council lie in the unpredicted and unmanageable surge in prison numbers in the mid-2000s – the prison population leapt from 64,000 to 82,000 in the first eight years of the millennium. The inability of the prison system to cope with the swelling numbers prompted Jack Straw as Home Secretary to introduce emergency early release measures. A variety of proposals were put forward for improving the balance between the supply of prison places and the demand for them. A Sentencing Guidelines Council had been established in 2003, and a panel to advise the Court of Appeal about guideline judgments five years before that. But the prison population crisis demonstrated the need for a more effective planning mechanism. The re-branded Sentencing Council was born in April 2010; it has a statutory duty to consider the cost of different sentences and their relative effectiveness in preventing reoffending when preparing or revising sentencing guidelines, and may also promote awareness of such matters. But, according to Mr Allen, it has:
“done almost nothing to research and promote the effectiveness of sentences”.
Sentencing over the last decade
The focus of the Council’s first ten years has so far largely been on producing guidelines for courts. Mr Allen thinks these guidelines should have raised the threshold for custodial sentences and reduces their length when they are unavoidable, arguing that the cost of different sentences and their effectiveness in reducing reoffending is something the Council must consider when drafting guidelines. Mr Allen acknowledges that while the Council hasn’t undertaken an overall review of sentencing levels, in most cases it has at least tried to promote consistency rather than raise severity. But its own evaluations have shown that for serious assaults, burglary and robbery guidelines have had an inflationary effect.
A new role?
Mr Allen calls for a fundamental debate about the role which the Sentencing Council plays in the development of policy and practice, arguing that, even within its existing remit, the Council could reinvent itself as an expert body on sentencing which does not simply reflect existing norms but challenges them based on evidence of effectiveness. In practice this would mean taking a range of measures to reduce the sentence inflation which has taken place since 2010, and to encourage greater use of community-based sanctions and measures, including restorative justice. The evidence shows that community sentences are in most cases more effective than custody at reducing reoffending.
Given the recent official projections that our prison population will increase by 20,000 over the next six years, the Transform Justice paper calls for the Council to have a statutory duty to assess the impact on our prison population of any new government proposals relating to sentencing policy.
Mr Allen also sketches out a much more ambitious role for the Sentencing Council in:
“advising government and parliament about a wider variety of sentencing matters, such as changes to maximum sentences for offences, whether offences should be punishable by prison, and whether offences should be dealt with only in the magistrates’ court.”
Given the current government’s rhetoric on being tough on crime (and criminals) and commitment to building extra prison places, it seems unlikely that it will be receptive to these arguments. However, out of the public gaze, there must be some very real concern at the £4.3 billion spent annually on our prison and probation system with other public services in dire need of investment.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.