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Justice Select Committee warns that changes to early guilty plea scheme could increase prison population

The proposed guidelines for reduction in sentence for guilty pleas produced by the Sentencing Council has been criticised by the Justice Select Committee who have voiced strong concerns about the impact on the expanding prison population. Concerns noted include potential for a defendant who did not plead guilty at the ‘first stage of the proceedings’ (namely where the charge is first put to the defendant in court) opting for a trial on the basis of the lessened credit for plea being available under the proposed guidelines.

The Sentencing Council’s Consultation Stage Resource Assessment  estimated that an additional 4,000 prison spaces may be required in the instance of a defendant who decided to pursue a not guilty plea on the basis that he had lost the majority of the credit available to him by not pleading guilty at the ‘first stage of the proceedings’, thereby resulting in a lengthier prison sentence. Further estimates of an additional 1,000 spaces being required due to the fact that the proposed guidelines encourage consistency and therefore reduced judicial discretion. To further quantify the potential effect on the prison population the Justice Select Committee Chairman, Bob Neill MP has issued proposals to conduct a full assessment in 2017 stating:

“There has not been enough research to assess the possible impact on prisons and other aspects of the criminal justice system. The Sentencing Counsel should conduct further research into the factors that influence a defendant’s decision to plead guilty, to inform a more comprehensive and robust assessment of the draft guideline, taking into account costs and savings to all aspects of the criminal justice system, especially the prison population”.

Further concerns have been raised regarding the impact upon vulnerable defendants suffering from mental health conditions, learning difficulties and autism and their ability to fully be able to understand the complexities of a case at such an early stage to avail themselves of the full credit. The initial consultation paper failed to make any mention of this vulnerable (and significant in terms of percentage of the population of offenders) group.  Mr Neill has requested that the Sentencing Counsel should undertake a “comprehensive equality impact analysis, and consider how to mitigate any adverse impacts relating to defendants with protected characteristics including disability”.

It would seem that any potential change to the credit for plea system is at least two years off, although this report has raised a more general question about the efficacy of the proposed scheme.


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