Justice Committee

Press notice No. 44 of Session 2008-09

1 July 2009

STRICTLY EMBARGOED: not to be published in any form before 00.01 Thursday 2 July 2009


Political debates on sentencing too often a 'competition to appear toughest on crime'

In a report on parliamentary scrutiny of sentencing guidelines released today, Thursday 2 July 2009, the Commons Justice Committee says current sentencing policy risks being driven by a "misconception of what people want" which is "not intelligent, appropriate or sustainable" and more worryingly, means resources will be diverted away from an effective sentencing framework and will "result in more people being victims of crime in the future and less confidence in the criminal justice system."

The Committee says there is a lack of clarity from the outset of sentencing policy-making. The five aims of sentencing set out in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 are neither internally coherent, prioritised nor consistently applied. As a result the public, criminal justice organisations, victims, sentencers and the Government all have different expectations as to what sentencing is trying to achieve, which, the Committee says, means that "someone, inevitably, will be disappointed."

It is also concerned that, all too often, "political debates about sentencing descend into a counter-productive competition as to who can appear toughest on crime, measured by sentence length." The Committee states that the focus on sentence length in public debate will continue to damage public confidence unless ways can be found of "combining within a sentence a clear signal as to the seriousness of the offence and a rational assessment of how effective the sentence will be in preventing further crimes."

The Committee is currently conducting an inquiry, Justice Reinvestment, into how the finite resources available to deliver sentencing could be used to best effect to reduce re-offending and prevent the creation of further victims of crime. The existing Sentencing Guidelines Council is under a duty to take account of the costs of different sentences and their relative effectiveness in preventing re-offending. The proposed new council will be under further duties to publish guideline impact assessments and information on factors likely to affect prison, probation and youth justice resources. These tasks, however, are bedevilled by a lack of reliable data and the Committee urges the Government to ensure structures and resources for effective data collection and analysis are in put in place. The Committee commits itself to prioritising these areas in its future scrutiny of draft guidelines; in other words, placing emphasis on 'what works' in terms of achieving the purposes of sentencing and promoting public confidence in the criminal justice system.

Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith, Chair of the Committee, said: "The basic principles of sentencing laid out in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 are not consistent with each other and there is no clarity as to the primary goals of sentencing: nor do sentencers have the information to determine what works to prevent further crime.

"Media reports and opinion polls constantly tell us that people want longer custodial sentences. However, when asked about the appropriate sentence in specific cases, and given all the facts, people actually support sentencing at or below present practice. Sentencing policy should not be determined on the presumption that the public regard longer custodial sentences as more effective. Public confidence would be better served by ensuring, and then demonstrating, that sentencing is effective in preventing people from being victims of crime in the future.

"Pursuing a policy of sending more people to jail for longer is based on the misguided conception that it will increase public confidence in sentencing when in fact, paradoxically, it will only divert resources from the measures needed to prevent more crime, and therefore more people becoming victims of crime."

1. Committee membership is as follows: Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP (Chairman), Mr David Heath MP, Rt Hon Douglas Hogg MP, Siân James MP, Jessica Morden MP, Julie Morgan MP, Rt Hon Alun Michael MP, Robert Neill MP, Dr Nick Palmer MP, Linda Riordan MP, Virendra Sharma MP, Mr Andrew Turner MP, Mr Andrew Tyrie MP and Dr Alan Whitehead MP

2. The report is published as the Committee's Sixth Report of Session 2008-09 (HC 715)

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