6 June 2008

Justice Committee response to the Consultation Guideline: Theft and Burglary (non-dwelling)

The Justice Committee is grateful for the opportunity to consider the Consultation Guideline on Theft and Burglary (non-dwelling). We heard evidence on this guideline on 3 June 2008 and I attach a copy of the transcript for your information.

This guideline covers offences such as theft from a shop that are often non-violent and involving the theft of goods of low value. They are therefore the types of offences that would not result in a custodial sentence based on a policy of reserving custody for serious and violent offenders. Indeed, we received evidence during our Towards Effective Sentencing inquiry proposing that custody should be limited in law so as not to be available as a sentence for shoplifting below a certain value without aggravating features. We believe that the consultation guideline strikes an effective balance between the policy aims of matching seriousness of the offence to the sentence and reserving custodial sentences for serious and violent offenders, whilst allowing enough flexibility for more severe sentences where the offence involves specific factors such as the targeting of vulnerable victims.

We welcome the fact that you have taken on board concerns about the impact on small businesses. We also welcome the recognition in the Guideline that certain victims may be particularly vulnerable and the flexibility emphasized within the Guideline for the sentencer to react to this factor.

You also state within the Guideline that where an offence is motivated by addiction this will not affect the seriousness of the offence but could affect the type of sentence given, for example including a drug treatment requirement. As well as addiction, it may be necessary to address other factors leading to criminal behavior, such as social or family circumstances or mental health problems, if there is to be any prospect of preventing re-offending. We heard evidence, both in our Towards Effective Sentencing inquiry and in evidence on this guideline that short prison sentences are often ineffective in changing behaviour and community sentences are more effective in appropriate case. The approach in the Guideline follows the way in which the Criminal Justice Act 2003 sets out multiple aims for sentencing - including both punishment and reform and rehabilitation of offenders. It therefore provides for what we were told was one of the key concerns for victims - that a crime does not happen again. The Guideline ensures that sentencers can determine a sentence appropriate to the seriousness of the offence and at the same time consider the whole circumstances of the offender.

Witnesses to the Committee emphasized the benefits that Restorative Justice approaches can have, both for the victims of crime and in contributing to rehabilitation of the offender. Whilst Restorative Justice would clearly only be appropriate in a limited number of cases - depending on for example the attitudes of the offender and the victim and its availability in a particular area - we would like to see the Guideline remind sentencers to consider Restorative Justice.

The Committee also heard evidence that where offenders had previously received a custodial or community sentence and were convicted of theft again they were more likely to receive a custodial sentence. This is consistent with the Panel's research findings. The point was made to us that rehabilitation takes time and that relapses were likely; previous convictions should be taken into account but should not be assumed to limit the sentencing options when determining an appropriate sentence. The Committee notes that the Guideline, as usual, applies to first-time offenders and refers to the requirements of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to take into account relevant previous convictions without giving further guidance. We wonder however if, given the prevalence of repeat offenders in this offence group and the fact that the Guideline already recognizes the importance of tackling underlying behaviours, there is room to remind sentencers that they are not constrained by any perception of having to move up a scale of penalties from fines to community to custodial sentences.

Rt Hon Alan Beith MP
Justice Committee