Categorized | Criminal Justice, Law Updates

Prison term discount plans shelved

Prison term discount plans shelved

Once again the peace of Westminster was disturbed by the sound of screeching brakes and the smell of burning rubber as yet another major policy revision was thrown into reverse. 

By my reckoning the reported shelving of justice secretary Ken Clarke’s sentencing plans is the fifth such U-turn in recent months. The Government would have us believe that policy U-turns are a sign of a listening, flexible governance, but when they become so frequent judicious flexibility starts to look more like careless driving or simple incompetence.

Last May the Coalition Programme for Government committed to a full review of sentencing and rehabilitation policy. That review produced a detailed green paper in which Clarke sought to tear up rules on fixed jail terms for offenders and restore the discretion of judges when sentencing murderers and other serious offenders (see blog ‘Breaking the Cycle’, posted on 23 December 2010). One of the major proposals was to encourage defendants in England and Wales to plead guilty early by offering a discount of up to 50% instead of 34%. This would mean 3,400 fewer prison places needed in 2014/15 and a saving of £130m.

Of all the green paper proposals this attracted the most hostility. Many conservatives fear it undermined Tory claims to be the party of law and order, particularly over shorter sentences in return for rapists pleading guilty. According to several top judges, criminals would spend too little time behind bars. Lord Justice Thomas, vice-president of the Queen’s Bench Division, and Lord Justice Goldring, the senior presiding judge of England and Wales, said it would not be right to go beyond the current rules, which allow for a discount of up to a third for a guilty plea. In their view, a discount of 50% for an early indication of guilt risks crossing the boundary between giving the guilty the incentive to plead guilty and leading the innocent into making false admissions. Judge David Swift, chairman of the criminal sub-committee of the Council of Circuit Judges, added that any increase in the discount given for guilty pleas would benefit serious offenders the most.

The U-turn on sentencing was a pretty swift execution of a policy that had been in the coalition agreement, with the saving credited in the budget. The Prime Minister in the Commons this week insisted there had been no U-turn, arguing that the discount proposal had only been floated in a consultative green paper. A number 10 spokesman was reported as saying that the policy of discounted sentences had not been to cabinet. But a fortnight ago, in the Commons, Clarke had described the policy as agreed, and only at the weekend justice minister Nick Herbert had been defending the plans.  Clarke is now reported to be fiercely resisting Treasury demands to make his justice ministry bear the multi-million pound cost of the U-turn.

Clarke had originally postponed an announcement on his sentencing plans until after the Whitsun break. The home secretary, Theresa May, confirmed on Wednesday that this announcement has now been postponed again, and the publication of a sentencing and legal aid bill delayed for a matter of weeks. Watch this space.

This post was written by:

- who has written 460 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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