“Overhauling” sentencing The Police Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill
On 9 March 2021, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was unveiled in Parliament. The Bill is considerable in scope, with the potential to impact all stages of the criminal process. It contains wide-ranging amendments to provisions for the sentencing and release of offenders.
The Government press release states that the Bill seeks to “overhaul sentencing laws to keep serious sexual and violent offenders behind bars for longer, and placing greater emphasis on rehabilitation to better help offenders to turn their lives around and prevent further crimes.”
Some of the sentencing proposals appear to have been drafted as a direct response to recent events. For example, the Bill will see the maximum sentence for criminal damage to a commemorative building or structure increase from three months to 10 years imprisonment. Others have been publicised for some time, such as the increase to the maximum sentence for assault on an emergency worker from 12 months to two years.
The most substantial changes to sentencing and release are contained largely within Part 7 of the Bill and include the following significant reforms:
- The starting point for offenders aged 21 or over who are convicted of the murder of a child “involving a substantial degree of premeditation or planning” will be a “whole life order”.
- The power to impose whole life orders on 18 to 20-year-olds if the court considers that the seriousness of the offence, or combination of offences, is exceptionally high even by the standard of offences which would normally result in a whole life order in the case of an offender aged 21 or over.
- The starting point of 12 years for children who commit murder will be replaced by considerably higher starting points in certain cases, based on the age of the offender and the starting point that would have applied to an adult offender. As with adult offenders, where the offender took a knife to the scene intending to commit an offence and used that knife to commit murder, the starting point is significantly increased. In the case of offenders aged 17, a starting point of 23 years applies. For those aged 14 or under, the starting point is 13 years.
- The requirement that offenders sentenced to terms of more than seven years for serious specified offences serve two-thirds of their sentence before becoming eligible for release on license. There is also a proposal that offenders serving sentences of less than seven years, but more than four years for certain specified offences including manslaughter, section 18 GBH and sexual offences for which a life imprisonment may be imposed, be required to serve two-thirds of their sentence prior to release on license.
- An increase in the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous or careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs from 14 years imprisonment to life imprisonment.
- A change in the threshold for departing from the minimum term for a ‘third strike’ burglary, ‘third strike’ Class A drugs trafficking offence and ‘two-strike’ offence involving a weapon or bladed article so that the court must impose the minimum term in each case, unless of the opinion that “there are exceptional circumstances which relate to the offences or offender and justify not doing so” (not merely that it would be unjust to do so in all the circumstances).
One welcome proposed change (s134) is to allow for time spent on remand automatically to count when sentencing youths to detention and training orders – presently an anomaly that needs addressing.
The stated aim of the Bill is two-fold: greater punishment and better rehabilitation. The premise of the reforms is that longer sentences will lead to decreased crime and restored confidence in the criminal justice system. While increased sentences may be a convenient response to a perceived public opinion, sentencing reforms must proceed on a principled basis with a focus on the actual effects of longer sentences on deterrence and rehabilitation. Parliament will next consider the Bill at its second reading on 15 and 16 March 2021.