News type:
Press releases

News topic:
Equality and diversity

Published on:

10 January 2023

New research that examines the potential and perceived impact of sentencing guidelines on specific groups of offenders has been published by the Sentencing Council.

The research, conducted by the University of Hertfordshire, focused on any potential for the Council’s work to cause disparity in sentencing outcomes across demographic groups. It was conducted to support the Council’s commitment to explore and consider issues of equality and diversity relevant to its work.

The research – which focused on a small number of sample guidelines – assessed the potential influence of the language, factors and explanatory texts used in guidelines, as well as their structure, the guideline development process, the Council’s relationship with stakeholders and its communications.

The research used a multi-method approach that combined textual and data analysis and engagement with external research participants. Those research participants included 14 civil society organisations, covering all relevant equality, diversity and inclusion-related areas (such as sex, age and race). The team also worked with 33 sentencers (including magistrates, district judges, Crown Court judges, and High Court judges) and 20 defence lawyers. All took part anonymously in the research.

The findings of the research include:

  • Concerns by some research participants that some factors in sentencing guidelines could lead to particular disparities in sentencing outcomes were not always borne out by the data analysis. For example, the data analysis indicated that the factors had a mixed impact across the different offences included in the study and that there were varying impacts on sentencing outcomes across different demographic groups.
  • Some research participants thought that women are likely to be sentenced more harshly than men. However, the data analysis showed that men were more likely than women to receive immediate custody for those robbery and theft offences that were included in the research.
  • The data analysis found no strong or consistent evidence of sentencing disparities for different ethnic groups for those offences looked at, although it should be noted that this does not accord with previous Sentencing Council work and other academic research.
  • Data analysis did support research participants’ perceptions that younger offenders receive more favourable sentencing outcomes. Defence lawyers and sentencers commented positively on the Sentencing children and young people guideline.

The Council is committed to a programme of work that will allow it to respond to findings in this research and is already working on some of the issues identified.

Sentencing Council Chairman, Lord Justice William Davis, said:  

“The Sentencing Council welcomes this report as providing an opportunity to examine our work through the lens of equality and diversity. We are committed to promoting a transparent, consistent and fair approach to sentencing.  That involves putting equality and diversity high on our agenda.

“We have considered the report’s findings with great care. Our response to the report commits the Council to a programme of work in relation to a number of the issues raised by the research.  In these areas we intend either to provide solutions by appropriate amendment of guidelines or to investigate matters in greater depth. This is important and continuing work for the Council.”

The Council’s programme of work includes:

  • Reviewing the use and application of aggravating and mitigating factors and expanded explanations in sentencing guidelines.
  • Reviewing the Imposition of community and custodial sentences guideline, which includes looking at whether and when sentencers request pre-sentence reports and so receive all the information needed about an offender.
  • Collecting data in magistrates’ courts and the Crown Court that will provide further information for research.
  • Conducting user testing of our digital guidelines, to explore how sentencers use the sentencing guidelines, including how they use the expanded explanations.

Notes to editors

  1. The research was conducted by the University of Hertfordshire in 2021-2022.
  2. Methodology: the research used a multi-method approach involving text analysis; data analysis, using the Crown Court Sentencing Survey (CCSS) data (1 January 2013 to 31 March 2015) and ethnicity data from the Ministry of Justice’s Court Proceedings Database; and engagement with civil society organisations, defence lawyers and sentencers though co-production that allows partners to contribute to the production of knowledge and solutions.
  3. Sample guidelines: robbery (covering guidelines for adults and for children and young people); theft (covering theft from the person, theft from shops or stalls, theft in breach of trust and receiving stolen goods); harassment; and the overarching Sentencing children and young people guideline.
  4. Race/ethnicity: The Equality Act 2010 uses the term ‘race’. However, ‘ethnicity’; is used in this report to be consistent with the terminology used in the CCSS dataset drawn on for the research
  5. Sentencing guidelines must be followed, unless the court is satisfied that it would be contrary to the interest of justice to do so in all the circumstances of a particular case.
  6. The Sentencing Council was established by Parliament to be an independent body, but accountable to Parliament for its work which is scrutinised by the Justice Select Committee. Justice Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the Sentencing Council’s effectiveness and efficiency, for its use of public funds and for protecting its independence. Judicial Council members are appointed by the Lord Chief Justice with the agreement of the Lord Chancellor. Non-judicial Council members are appointed by the Lord Chancellor with the agreement of the Lord Chief Justice.
  7. For more information, please contact Kathryn Montague, Sentencing Council Press Office, on 020 7071 5792 / 5788 / 07912301657 or email