Sentencing Council publishes new guidelines on sentencing children and young people and offenders who plead guilty

Today, the Sentencing Council has published two new sentencing guidelines. One covers how courts should make a reduction in sentence for offenders who admit their guilt, and the other deals with the approach they should take when sentencing children and young people.

The two guidelines have been published at the same time since the children and young people guideline includes a section on reductions in sentence for a guilty plea for under 18s and it is therefore desirable that they come into force in the courts simultaneously.

The guilty plea guideline aims to encourage those defendants who are going to plead guilty to do so as early in the court process as possible.

The earlier a guilty plea is entered, the earlier victims and witnesses will know that they will be spared the stress and anxiety of a trial. In addition, it improves the efficiency of the criminal justice system by allowing police, prosecutors and courts to focus on other cases.

The principle that offenders who plead guilty get a reduction in sentence is not new and the law states that courts must take a guilty plea into account. The new guideline will, however, tighten up the process, encouraging offenders to plead guilty by defining more strictly the point at which an offender can receive the maximum sentence reduction. It sets out clearly that in order to qualify for the maximum level of reduction (one third), a defendant must plead at the first court hearing.

For offenders who plead guilty after that first hearing the maximum reduction they can be given will be one-quarter reducing to one-tenth on the day of trial.

However, the guideline provides for exceptions to ensure that vulnerable defendants are not penalised if they need more information or advice before they plead. The guideline is directed only at defendants wishing to enter a guilty plea and does not place pressure on defendants to plead guilty if they do not want to.

The guideline was subject to a public consultation which led to a number of changes to the draft version. These included retaining the different levels of reduction that were set out in the previous guideline. The Council had proposed lowering the reductions available after the first hearing, but respondents said that this could in fact lead to an increase in the number of trials due to defendants deciding not to plead guilty.

The Council is also introducing new guidelines to assist courts when sentencing children and young people – that is, those aged 10-17 years. They provide up to date, comprehensive and accessible guidance on the general principles to be applied when sentencing children and young people, along with new offence-specific guidelines on robbery and sexual offences. Over the past few years, the Sentencing Council has produced new adult guidelines for these offences, but sentencing adults involves a very different approach, so these new guidelines for under 18s have been produced separately.

The guidelines are not intended to make significant changes to the length of sentences being given to young people. They will, however, look with far greater detail at the age, background and circumstances of each child or young person, while meeting the legal requirement to consider their welfare. The aim is to reach the most appropriate sentence that will best achieve the goal of preventing reoffending, which is the main function of the youth justice system. They also bring guidance up to date to cover changes to legislation such as the rules for allocation of cases to different courts.

In addition, the guidelines reflect changes in offending that have occurred since the previous guidelines were produced. This includes for example, ensuring that sentencing takes into account the use of technology and social media in offending. Offences may be filmed or photographed on smartphones and circulated via social media, which can have a great effect on victims.

Sentencing Council chairman, Lord Justice Treacy said:

“The guidelines we have announced will bring improvements to the way courts deal with offenders who have admitted offences and to how the sentencing of children and young people is undertaken.

“The guilty pleas guideline will help ensure that those defendants who are going to plead guilty to do so as early in the court process as possible. This saves victims and witnesses the stress of a trial and means the police, prosecutors and courts can put their resources into those cases that do go to trial.

“Our guideline on the sentencing of children and young people has the prevention of reoffending at its heart. No one wants children who commit offences going on to become adult criminals. The guideline therefore looks with far greater detail at what kind of sentence would prevent this based on the age, background and circumstances of each child or young person, so that it can help them reintegrate instead of becoming alienated further.”

Both guidelines will come into force in courts in England and Wales on 1 June 2017.