Report on Sentencing Guidelines Council and youth sentences

13 August 2009

The Commons Justice Select Committee publishes its response to the Sentencing Guidelines Council on the Council's new guidance on overarching principles in sentencing youth under 18

The Committee usually provides comments on draft guidelines to the Sentencing Guidelines Council in the form of a letter; where it considers that a draft guideline raises major issues it reports to the House.

The Committee considers that the “Overarching principles—sentencing youths” is a crucial sentencing guideline, saying it “fills a critical gap, setting out for youth courts the basis upon which they should sentence offenders under the age of 18”—guidance which the youth courts have not previously had.

The Committee’s response highlights the key issues raised in evidence to it, for example, the apparent inconsistency in approaches to sentencing children, and a varied understanding among sentencers of the concept that custody should only ever be a “sentence of last resort” for young people.

Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith, Chairman of the Committee, said:

"Having an overarching set of principles should improve the consistency and effectiveness of youth sentencing, but the guidance needs to be clear and sound, and the aims of the guidance need to be clear. And the guidance will not work if suitable community based sentences are not available in the court's area. We were particularly concerned at the lack of programmes for girls, and the lack of suitable accommodation in some areas for boys carrying out community sentences.

"We know that custody does not work to reduce reoffending, and that it does not have a deterrent effect on young people, because their crimes are usually opportunistic and impulsive, so it is vital that effective alternatives are available.

"The automatic use of custody to deal with young people who fail to comply with the terms of their sentence or Rehabilitation Order can be the wrong approach—these are mainly young people with chaotic lifestyles and no parental support, and active intervention to make sure they turn up can be a much better investment of taxpayers' money than automatic and expensive custody."

The Committee also stressed that courts should have access to information about a young offender's mental health, learning difficulties and communication problems to enable the most appropriate sentence to be imposed.

The Committee says the evidence it took on this draft sentencing guideline highlighted key areas in relation to youth justice deserving of further scrutiny, such as the use of remand and provisions for offenders aged 18-24, and it will consider how to pursue these areas further in its work.

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