New guidelines proposed for the sentencing of young offenders

Today, the Sentencing Council has published a consultation on sentencing young offenders. Its proposals are in two parts: the overall approach courts should take when sentencing young offenders aged between 10 and 17; and draft sentencing guidelines covering robbery and sexual offences committed by young offenders. It aims to provide judges and magistrates with up-to-date guidance that will help ensure consistency in sentencing in England and Wales.

The general principles for the sentencing of young people are long established in legislation and sentencing practice. The law sets out the purpose of the youth justice system, namely to prevent offending, and the draft guideline creates an approach to sentencing to support this aim.

The Overarching Principles update existing guidance, making it more accessible and comprehensive, in order to be the most useful tool possible for sentencers and practitioners. It reflects developments since current guidance was introduced, such as the recent introduction of a guideline on how cases should be allocated to the Crown Court or magistrates’ courts.

Rather than focusing on specific offences, these principles apply when sentencing any offender aged under 18. They therefore provide information on the key principles of the youth justice system, how a sentence should be determined, what sentences are available to courts depending on the age of the offender, guidance on breach of orders and how cases should be allocated to Crown or youth courts.

They do not aim to make significant changes to sentence levels. In addition, where there are sentencing rules set down by law, such as the imposition of life sentences for murder, these will continue to apply.

The guidelines also take into account how offending has changed in the years since the existing guideline was introduced in 2009, such as how technological developments have influenced offending. For example, among the aggravating factors included in the proposed guideline are the blackmail or humiliation of victims by offenders filming offences or sharing photos and videos online and via social media.

In addition to the draft guideline covering the overall sentencing principles, proposed guidelines relating to robbery and sexual offences have also been published.

Following the Council’s production of adult sentencing guidelines covering these offences, it was a logical step to produce the equivalent guidance for offences committed by youths as well, bringing guidance up to date, but reflecting the different approach to sentencing youths.

These offence-specific youth guidelines aim to bring a more comprehensive and tailored approach to sentencing. Compared with existing guidance, they look in much greater detail at the age, background and circumstances of each offender in order to reach the most appropriate sentence that will best achieve the aim of preventing offending, the main function of the youth justice system.

The existing robbery youth guideline was published in 2006 and only covered certain types of robbery. It also based sentencing on a model of the offender being a 17-year-old with no previous convictions. The new guideline aims to be far more comprehensive and flexible, covering all types of robbery and adapting to young offenders of all ages and levels of maturity.

Existing guidance for sentencing sexual offences committed by people under 18 is also limited and only covers a few offences that are not commonly sentenced.

The Council therefore decided to expand the guidelines to cover all sexual offences and provide more comprehensive guidance for sentencers.

Like the guideline covering the overall approach to sentencing youths, the sexual offences guideline takes into account the use of technology in offending and as well as the aggravating factor of filming or photographing offences and sharing this material on the internet, online grooming is also included as an aggravating factor.

Both the robbery and sexual offences guidelines include the usual consideration of the harm caused to the victim in order to assess the seriousness of the offence and this includes both physical harm and psychological harm.

The guidelines are now subject to a public consultation and the Council is seeking views on a number of issues including the general principles that should be applied when sentencing youths, the guidance on the sentencing options available for youths, and how the seriousness of an offence should be assessed.

The consultation will last for 12 weeks, closing on 3 August 2016. Following the consultation, a definitive guideline will be produced.

Chairman of the Sentencing Council, Lord Justice Treacy, said:

“We want to ensure that young people who have committed offences are sentenced fairly and proportionately, with the primary aim of stopping them reoffending. These guidelines will help achieve this. No one wants young people turning into adult criminals and sentencing must play its part in fostering a sense of responsibility and helping them reintegrate rather than become alienated.

“This consultation is open to anyone who would like to give their views on our proposals, from the general principles for sentencing youths to specific aggravating and mitigating factors.”