The Sentencing Council has had an extremely busy and productive first two years. We have published guidelines on high volume crimes like assault and drug offences, launched the first ever national research on how Crown Court judges sentence and made it a real priority to engage with legal professionals and the public. As we enter our third year, our work rate shows no sign of slowing down as we turn our attention to developing guidelines for sexual offences, fraud and robbery, and expanding our research to the magistrates? courts.
The Council has three principal aims. The first - and one that readers of the Advocate will be most familiar with - is to promote a clear, fair and consistent approach to sentencing by developing new sentencing guidelines. The second is to produce analysis and research on sentencing, including assessing the impact of guidelines on sentencing practice. The third is to work to improve public confidence in sentencing by promoting awareness and understanding of sentencing and considering the impact of sentencing decisions on victims.
Research and analysis
While the production of sentencing guidelines is probably what the Council is best known for, it has a very real role to play in undertaking analysis and research in relation to sentencing practice.
Research with sentencers therefore informs the development of each guideline. For example, interviews we conducted with circuit judges around the country helped to shape the definitive drugs guideline for drug "mules? and street dealers in particular. We are also running large-scale ongoing research projects such as the Crown Court sentencing survey, launched in October 2010. This is a nationwide survey designed to gather information on sentences by asking judges to indicate which factors they have taken into account when deciding on the appropriate sentence to pass. This will help the Council to identify the reasons for sentences falling outside guideline ranges, and in the development of future guidelines identifying which factors are important at step 1 and step 2.
Criminal practitioners will be only too familiar with media coverage of various surveys which report that members of the public believe that sentencing is lenient. This is frequently as a result of low levels of knowledge of the criminal justice system and the way in which much of it is reported by the media.
What is clear is that, when given the details of criminal cases and informed of the process that sentencers and practitioners follow when sentencing, the public?s sentencing decisions are much closer to the sentences actually passed and, in some cases, are more lenient.
The Council is being proactive in working with the media and engaging with the public as it is vital that the public understand what judges do in their name and why. We are currently working with Victim Support, for example, to produce a short animated film to explain the basics of sentencing to victims and witnesses to try and dispel some of the myths about the sentencing process.
The aspect of the Council?s work that practitioners are most familiar with is the production of sentencing guidelines. Guidelines aim to ensure a clear, fair and consistent approach to sentencing while improving public understanding of the process involved in sentencing offenders and the likely outcomes.
The Council has already developed and issued five sets of definitive guidelines - for assault, burglary, drug offences, totality and offences taken into consideration and, most recently, dangerous dog offences. The guideline format follows a step-by-step approach which makes it easier for judges, magistrates and practitioners to apply and for the public, including victims and witnesses, to follow.
In all the guidelines, the Council has returned to first principles of sentencing and focuses attention on the two key determinants of seriousness as defined in section 143 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003: harm and culpability. Weighting these two determinants equally in order to reach a specific category of offence within the guidelines represents a different approach from previous guidelines which focused more on scenarios which judges found restrictive. The Council?s approach allows for a clear structure which can be broadly replicated for all offences. Some guidelines will require slightly different structures but the principles of harm and culpability will remain the same, which is important in encouraging a consistent approach.
The Council?s newest guideline, on sentencing dangerous dog offences, came into force in courts on 20 August 2012. It was produced following requests for guidance from magistrates and the police, and aims to ensure that sentencers use their full range of powers when dealing with offenders, and that effective guidance on ancillary orders is provided. It encourages courts to use more severe sentences where appropriate and proposes an increase in sentencing levels from current practice. This is likely to lead to more offenders being jailed, more use of community sentences and fewer discharges.
The Council is currently developing a new guideline for sexual offences and will be launching a consultation on this towards the end of 2012. The current guidelines were written shortly after the Sexual Offences Act 2003 came into force, as it was considered important that sentencers had guidance on what was a radical overhaul of the law on sexual offending. However, in some instances, a clear picture of offending under the Act had not yet developed. The nature of offending is now clearer and there have also been massive advances in technology since 2003 which raises a need to look again at how this has shaped sexual offending and how it should be reflected in the sentencing guidelines. The Council will be consulting widely to ensure viable and effective solutions.
The Council is also developing new guidelines for a range of environmental offences, with a particular focus on how courts should deal with corporate offenders, revising the theft and fraud guidelines, and reviewing the guidance available in the youth court.
As practitioners, advocates are final "users? of the guidelines, so the Council very much values professionals? input to its consultations and looks forward to views on these forthcoming guidelines. The LCCSA has provided detailed and useful responses to all our consultations to date, and the Council very much values the collective nature of its responses. However, the Council would also like to encourage individual practitioners to respond. It is not necessary to respond to the whole consultation, and the online questionnaires accompanying consultations on our website - http://sentencingcouncil.judiciary.gov.uk - allow respondents to select areas of particular interest to them.
Michelle Crotty is the Head of the Office of the Sentencing Council