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Public debate on sentencing is “stuck in a dysfunctional and reactive cycle” Justice Committee warns

25 October 2023

Public debate on sentencing is “stuck in a dysfunctional and reactive cycle” the Justice Committee has warned, as it called on Government and Parliament to identify where there may be genuine and sustained gaps between sentencing policy and public opinion.

In its report entitled ‘Public opinion and understanding of sentencing’, the cross-party committee of MPs concluded the persistence of the view among the public that the system is not severe enough, represents a “significant long-term public policy challenge that needs to be addressed”.

The Committee’s report recommended that the Government should seek to actively engage the public on sentencing policy but should do so in a structured and methodologically rigorous fashion. It said that deliberative engagement exercises with members of the public should form part of the policy development process.

Policy proposals on sentencing it added should be subject to independent evaluation, so that the resourcing implications are evaluated before they are enacted.

It called on the Government to establish an independent advisory panel on sentencing to consider proposed changes to sentencing policy and to provide advice to ministers.

Chair comment

The Chair of the Justice Committee, Sir Bob Neill MP (Con, Bromley & Chislehurst), said:  

“Everyone involved in, or responsible for, the criminal justice system needs to take the duty to ensure public confidence extremely seriously.

“Stripping away unnecessary complexity in sentencing must also be prioritised to facilitate improved public debate.

“Improvements to open justice, such as the broadcasting of sentencing remarks, need to be built upon, including through some of the recommendations outlined in this report.

“Even if it is not possible to say that direct contact with, or information about, the criminal justice system will necessarily lead to improved confidence, it is undoubtedly a public good to encourage more of the public to know about the justice which is done in their name.”

The report noted public understanding of how sentencing works is low, creating an “accountability gap” where it is unclear which elements of sentencing the Government is responsible for.

It called for a “step change” in efforts on public legal education by the Ministry of Justice, the Attorney General’s Office and the Sentencing Council.

As part of the inquiry, the Committee commissioned a public polling exercise. 2,057 adults in England and Wales were interviewed about their knowledge and views on sentencing online between 24 February and 1 March 2023.

The Committee also worked with Involve, a leading public participation charity, to facilitate a deliberative engagement exercise.  25 adults from England and Wales met over three half-day sessions to discuss the aims of sentencing.

The Committee’s own polling found that whilst 74% of respondents knew that the courts were responsible for imposing a sentence on a guilty individual, only 22% of respondents knew that Parliament was responsible for setting the maximum sentence for offences in law.

The report described as “concerning” that much of the public is not aware of recent trends in sentence lengths. It found there is a “significant gap” in public information on sentencing and a need for more easily accessible data on sentencing trends, especially on sentencing for specific offences and in specific areas.

The Committee called for all sentencing remarks to be published (subject to the relevant legal restrictions) and as a minimum that victims of crime and bereaved families should have “ready and free access” to sentencing remarks.

It recommended that the Victims’ Code should include a right for victims of crime to be provided with the sentencing remarks of the judge without charge.

The report also recommended that given the potential importance of public opinion in influencing sentencing policy, the Government should consider adopting a structured engagement plan to gather information on the public’s views on sentencing.

The Committee’s polling on the public’s view on the appropriate starting points for specific offences suggested that a majority would support increases in the severity of the relevant custodial sentences.

The polling indicated significant public support for increasing the custodial sentences for murder, rape and domestic burglary. For example, 18% of respondents said that the starting point for the most serious rape cases should be a whole life order and 33% said the starting point for the most serious cases of domestic burglary should be a 10-year custodial sentence.

The polling and the public dialogue both found support for the view that one of the most important purposes of sentencing was to provide justice for the victim. 56% of respondents to the poll ranked ensuring the victim has secured justice as one of their top three factors that should influence a sentence.

The report recommended the Government should review the statutory purposes of sentencing to consider whether greater emphasis should be placed on achieving justice for victims of crime and their families.

It called on the MoJ to instruct the independent advisory panel to conduct regular reviews of the statutory minimum and maximum tariffs for sentences to determine whether sentences are proportionate and consistent across different types of offence.

Chair Comment

The Chair of the Justice Committee, Sir Bob Neill MP (Con, Bromley & Chislehurst) added:

“Our own polling indicates that the majority of the public support further increases to the severity of sentences for the gravest criminal offences.

“It is vital that policymakers adopt a consistent and principled response to maintaining public confidence in response to the challenge of the public's position on sentencing severity.

“Instead of simply adopting a reactive approach to sentencing policy, the Government should develop a structured mechanism for engaging the public on sentencing policy. We agree with Bishop James Jones’s view that there is a need for a new national debate on sentencing.”

Further information

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