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Criminal Sentencing - some facts and issues explained.

The way sentencing works can be confusing and many people aren’t clear as to why offenders get the sentences they do and how those sentences are served. For example, does a life sentence really last a lifetime? People often also think sentences are too lenient, fewer and fewer people are being sent to prison, that judges are out of touch and that crime is just getting worse. Here are some facts and explanations of these issues.

Do criminals get out of prison early without serving their full sentence?

A jail sentence means more than just time in prison. If an offender is sent to prison, the judge will decide how long he should spend in custody, but time in prison is just one part of the sentence. Offenders always complete their full sentence but usually half the time is spent in prison and the rest is spent on licence. While on licence, an offender can be sent back to prison if they break its terms.

The system of serving half a sentence in prison and half on licence was introduced by Parliament, and is not something that judges or magistrates have any control over.

Aren’t judges out of touch?

All judges face the realities of crime in society every day, with all types of offenders coming before them from all sections of the community. Judges and the public are more in tune than many people think – evidence reveals that when people are asked to sentence in actual cases, the sentences chosen are pretty similar to those that judges pick.

Does a life sentence really last for life?

If an offender is given a life sentence, it does last for the rest of their life. They will serve a term in prison – for example the minimum term for a murder with a knife is 25 years – then they will be released on licence which means they are subject to certain conditions for the rest of their life. If they break the terms of this licence, they will end up back in prison. Some offenders receive a whole life tariff, which means they will spend the rest of their life in prison.

Why should a defendant get any time off their sentence for admitting they actually did it?

Offenders who admit their guilt can get up to a third off their sentence if they do so at the earliest opportunity. There are two key benefits to an early guilty plea. The first is that it saves victims and witnesses from having to give evidence - which can be traumatic – and means that they get a conclusion to their case much more quickly than they would if it went through a full trial.

The second benefit is that it saves time and costs for all those agencies involved in the criminal justice system, including the police and the crown prosecution service and the courts, so that their resources are focused on the most difficult cases. Reductions for guilty pleas were introduced by Parliament – judges and magistrates only decide the amount of time off to give the offender.

Sentences don’t seem to reflect the seriousness of crimes

There is a clear logic to how sentences are decided, but media reports of particular cases will tend to focus on some details rather than all the facts of the case so it’s not always clear why an offender got a particular sentence.

Judges and magistrates weigh up all the facts, how blameworthy the offender is and the level of harm they have caused, particularly to the victim, and use sentencing guidelines to reach a proportionate sentence.

They look at aspects of the case that make the offence more serious, and any factors that reduce its seriousness. The specific factors will vary from offence to offence but something that would make an offence more serious would be using a weapon or targeting a vulnerable victim, and a mitigating factor could be previous good character.

The judge must also consider other factors such as whether the offender pleaded guilty – which normally means a reduction in sentence – or whether they spent time in prison while awaiting trial and sentencing. This time is deducted from the overall sentence.

Why aren’t offenders always sent to prison?

Some offences rightly deserve jail, but jail sentences aren’t appropriate for every crime and many are best dealt with in other ways. Community sentences aim to punish the offender for their crime, while dealing with the reasons for the offence and preventing re-offending.

Failure to comply with the requirements of a community sentence will bring the offender back to court and could mean a prison sentence is imposed. It is sometimes reported that an offender has “walked free from court” after sentencing if they have not been sent to jail. This isn’t true - all non-custodial sentences impose restrictions on the offender. A community sentence can require up to 300 hours unpaid work from the offender and place them under other restrictions like a curfew.

Victims don’t seem to be considered enough in sentencing – why is that?

Sentences are decided based on the harm the victim suffers and the offender’s role – so the effect on the victim is therefore a crucial part in the decision as to what sentence an offender gets.

Courts also have a duty to consider compensation orders in all cases – which means that if the offender has the money to pay compensation to their victim, then they can be required to do so. Also, the courts must order a Victim Surcharge - an extra amount added on - which is paid into a fund that helps improve services for victims of crime.

If you have any questions regarding the above information please contact Jamie Strong on 01926 491181


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