Victims central to new guideline for the sentencing of burglars

Today the Sentencing Council is publishing a new definitive guideline for the sentencing of burglars.

The guideline reinforces current sentencing practice, which means that offenders burgling people’s homes can expect a custodial sentence. Sentencing will remain at existing levels, and the guideline aims to ensure that the effect on victims is at the centre of considerations about what sentence each offender should receive.

When sentencing burglars the guideline asks judges to focus on the harm to the victim, as well as the culpability of the offender.  The seriousness of an offence will be increased if, for example, a victim is at home when a burglary takes place or if he or she experiences significant trauma. In such cases, the guideline directs the judge towards a more severe sentence. It also emphasises the seriousness of situations where a burglar has targeted vulnerable victims and the significance of victims being obliged to leave their home as a result of burglary.

The guideline, which will be used in both the Crown Court and magistrates’ courts, covers aggravated, domestic and non-domestic burglary.

  • It reinforces the particularly serious nature of aggravated burglary – that is, where a burglar has a weapon – and states that sentences for this offence must always be custodial with a range of up to 13 years.
  • It sets a sentencing range of up to six years for domestic burglary, a two year increase on the four years proposed by the Sentencing Council’s predecessor body, the Sentencing Advisory Panel.
  • It takes a new approach to non-domestic burglary, giving more focus on harm to the victim beyond the economic implications of a burglary, and setting a range of up to five years.

Commenting, Javed Khan, Chief Executive of Victim Support, said: “Being burgled and having your personal belongings trashed or stolen can have a lasting impact. With a quarter of burglary victims losing confidence, a fifth having trouble sleeping and one in ten suffering from depression. It is only right that the impact is taken into account in sentencing. We are pleased that the new guidelines take this into account and hope it will lead to more victims being offered the opportunity to tell a court about the effect through a victim personal statement.”

The introduction of the guideline follows a three-month consultation period during which responses from victims, the wider public and criminal justice professionals were sought. A large number of responses were received and the Council took these on board in producing the definitive guideline.

The consultation revealed:

  • clear endorsement from professionals for the approach of using three categories to determine the level of seriousness of offences;
  • strong support for the harm and culpability factors proposed and some suggestions for how some of the factors could be refined particularly around the vulnerability of the victim;
  • confirmation that the ranges and starting points for domestic and aggravated burglary are correct, but also an assertion by many respondents that the range for non-domestic burglary should be increased. This is reflected in the move from one to four years as originally proposed, to one to five years as is now in the definitive guideline.

Although the consultation closed before the disturbances in England in August, and responses did not therefore reference these events, the definitive guideline does take these events into consideration.  The Council recognises the damage caused and consequences of such events, especially for small businesses and shop owners living above or near premises, and has therefore included the context of general public disorder as a factor indicating greater harm caused in any burglary offence.

The Council’s definitive guideline also takes into account research on the views of the public and victims on burglary which has shown that, while many believe those convicted of domestic burglary should receive a custodial sentence, they do not think this is appropriate in every case. It indicates that there is a desire for sentence ranges which allow the court enough flexibility to reflect the factors of the case and decide what sentence is most appropriate.

Guidelines are intended to provide sentence ranges that cover the vast majority of cases that come before the courts. They do not, however, prevent judges and magistrates from sentencing offenders outside the ranges and up to the maximum sentences available in law where it is in the interests of justice to do so. The current statutory maximum sentences for burglary offences that judges can give are not, therefore, affected by the new guideline.

Deputy Chairman of the Sentencing Council, Lord Justice Hughes, said:

“These guidelines reinforce current sentencing practice for the different kinds of burglary. Burglary is often not simply a crime against property but may have a serious impact on people whose houses or businesses are invaded. Those who burgle people’s houses will normally go to prison.

“I would like to thank everyone who took the time to offer their views and share their experience of this offence in responding to our consultation. The volume of responses was very encouraging, with valuable contributions from the public and criminal justice professionals that have helped shape the final guideline.”

There will now be a three-month training and implementation period after which, the guideline will come into force on 16 January 2012.