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Sentencing guidance – reduction on sentence for a guilty plea

The Definitive Sentencing Guideline on Reduction in Sentence for Guilty Pleas came into effect on 1 June 2017 and is applicable both in Magistrates’ and the Crown Court to cases whose first appearance was on or after that date.

The Guideline explicitly recognises three key principles underpinning the scheme of reduction in sentence:

  1. A guilty plea reduces the impact of a crime upon victims.
  2. It avoids victims and witnesses having to give evidence at trial, and
  3. There is a Public Interest in reduction in costs both in investigative and trial procedures.

The Guideline explicitly states that nothing in it should be used to pressure a defendant into pleading guilty and acknowledges the right of the accused person to require the prosecution to prove guilt. It recognises that the earlier in the criminal justice process a Guilty plea is tendered, the greater the benefits to Victims; Witnesses and the CJS in general.

The tapering down of the percentage reduction in sentence, from approximately 1/3rd at the first court appearance to 10 % on day of trial is now well known. Perhaps less well known is the explicit preservation of about 10% reduction in sentence for a Defendant who “loses” a Newton Hearing – prior to the commencement of the Guideline it was custom & practice that no reduction was afforded in that circumstance. The Guideline also expressly removes the “overwhelming evidence” proviso.

The Sentencing Council Steering Group has recently begun a review of the implementation of the Guilty Plea Guideline with a view to identifying whether it is being uniformly applied; whether it has any impact upon defendants’ decisions on plea and timing of plea; and whether there is any evidence of unintended consequences.

Based on a necessarily limited pool of correspondents the PDS delegate to the Steering Group has collated some evidence that the guideline is being applied in all Crown Courts, albeit with some variations. In fact the Guideline provides for preservation of 1/3rd reduction for Guilty pleas at P&TPH where there are genuine reasons for delaying until that point. Examples include evidentially complex cases; situations where there are genuine mental health / capacity issues applicable to the defendant.

One potential unintended consequence might be an increase in the prison population. It is arguably the aggregated costs of imprisonment which can be most influenced by reductions in sentences. Taking Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke’s rule of thumb £32K per year cost of incarceration, one can readily see that reducing a custodial sentence by 1 year saves a considerable amount of public money.

Of course practitioners will have their own experiences of Defendants’ reasons either for withholding a seemingly inevitable Guilty plea or for choosing to plead guilty in less clear cut cases. It does seem to me that the one thing missing is any coherent body of research into Defendants’ psychology and the core factors which influence their decisions.