Sentencing Council proposes stricter rules for sentencing offenders who plead guilty

Today, the Sentencing Council has announced proposals to introduce stricter guidance for courts when they sentence offenders who have admitted their guilt.

A new draft guideline sets out a clearer, fairer and more consistent approach to managing guilty pleas that will incentivise offenders to admit their guilt as early as possible in the court process.

The earlier the guilty plea is entered the earlier victims and witnesses will know that they will be spared the stress and anxiety of a trial.

The guideline also aims to improve the efficiency of the criminal justice system by dealing with cases more quickly and so allow police, prosecutors and courts to focus their resources on other cases. This in turn benefits other victims and witnesses in that more focus can be given to investigating and prosecuting their cases.

The requirement that courts should take into account a guilty plea in deciding what sentence an offender should get is not new. It is a long-standing principle set out in law by Parliament. There is an existing sentencing guideline from 2007 but the Sentencing Council is required by law to prepare a new guideline on this aspect of sentencing.

The draft guideline aims to bring forward the point at which offenders plead guilty. It will do this by maintaining the current level of reduction (one third) for those who plead at the first stage of court proceedings, but giving a lower reduction than that available currently for a guilty plea entered any later in proceedings. The stage at which an offender can benefit from the maximum one-third reduction will be much more tightly defined.

Under the Council’s proposals, to qualify for the maximum reduction, an offender must plead guilty the first time they are asked for their plea in court. For offenders who plead guilty after that first stage the maximum reduction they can be given will be one-fifth compared to one-quarter under the current process. Reductions then drop further the closer to the trial date the plea is entered.

This stricter system will mean that more guilty pleas will be entered earlier in the court process than they are now since offenders will be in no doubt that they will face a longer sentence if they do not admit that they are guilty early on.

The guideline is now subject to consultation and the Council is asking for views on its proposals, in particular

  • the principles on which the reduction for a guilty plea should be based;
  • the levels of reduction that should be available;
  • the stage in the court process at which the different levels of reduction should apply;
  • any exceptions to the reductions available at various stages;
  • the regime that should apply in the case of murder;
  • the clarity and accessibility of the guideline; and
  • anything else that should be considered.

The Council is not consulting on the existence of reductions in sentence for guilty pleas, since this is set out in law. It is also important to note that nothing in the draft guideline should be taken to suggest that an accused person who is not guilty of an offence should be pressured to plead guilty.

During the consultation period, the Council will host a number of consultation meetings to seek views from criminal justice organisations and other groups with an interest in this area, as well as sentencers. It will also be conducting interviews with a defence advocates to explore how they might apply the guideline when advising defendants. Once the consultation is over and the guideline revised, a final guideline will be published and used by all adult courts and youth courts in England and Wales.

Sentencing Council Chairman, Lord Justice Treacy said:

“We want those who have committed crimes to admit their guilt as early as possible. When they do, it means victims and witnesses can be reassured that the offender has accepted responsibility for what they have done and that they are spared having to appear at court to testify. It also means that the police and Crown Prosecution Service can use their resources more efficiently to investigate and prosecute other cases.

“We want to develop a guideline that is clear, fair and consistent, so this consultation is open to everyone including members of the judiciary, legal practitioners and any individuals who work in or have an interest in criminal justice.”

The consultation, which is open until 5 May, can be found on the Sentencing Council website.