Criminals offered shorter sentences in return for guilty plea

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Murderers and other criminals were encouraged to admit their guilt in return for shorter jail terms under sentencing guidelines for judges and magistrates published yesterday.

Murderers and other criminals were encouraged to admit their guilt in return for shorter jail terms under sentencing guidelines for judges and magistrates published yesterday.

Defendants who plead guilty and spare victims the ordeal of giving evidence in court can expect their sentence to be cut by as much as a third, Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, said.

The discount is available to all offenders who had "accepted that they had acted contrary to the law and are prepared to do the punishment".

Lord Woolf said it was "very easy for someone to say sorry" but a full reduction in sentence only applied to those who admitted their crime "at the first reasonable opportunity", accepted the sentence and spared the victim or their families the ordeal of going to trial.

"I have been involved in the criminal justice system for something close to 50 years now and throughout those 50 years if a person gave a plea of guilty it was understood that there would be a reduction in the sentence," said Lord Woolf.

For murder, draft guidance would mean that in exceptional circumstances repentant offenders could be considered for parole earlier than under the present system.

But Lord Woolf made it clear that early release was not available to dangerous offenders who still posed a risk to society.

And where there was "overwhelming evidence" pointing to the defendant's guilt, an early confession would not attract such a high custodial discount.

Under new advice issued by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, all minimum sentences were to be treated as starting points subject to aggravating and mitigating factors.

In cases of murder, the courts, rather than the Home Secretary, will now set the minimum custodial sentence.

Rather than a politician deciding how long an offender should remain in prison, a judge, who has seen the defendant in court and heard mitigation on his behalf, will instead set the tariff. This part of the decision-making process is subject to a statutory framework imposed by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and set out by the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

Lord Woolf said: "Unfortunately, individuals are encouraged at present to plead guilty very rarely in the case of murder, possibly for historical reasons because it used to be a capital offence. The tradition used to be in murder cases that you always contest it. There's no reason why that should apply."

The guidelines also advise judges on a range of new sentences coming into force next year. Community regimes will be much harsher and offenders released from jail halfway through their sentence will have to comply with rigorous requirements, monitored by the Probation Service, for the second half.

The guidelines also look at the use of new sentences such as intermittent custody, or "weekend jail", and new types of suspended sentence. Lord Woolf said that he still believed custody was used too often and the publication of the guidance would help redress the balance by setting out consistent advice that would act as a brake on the new legislation.

"What we earnestly hope, as a result of these proposals, is that we will use custody more effectively and more appropriately than we do now," he said.

But it was vital that extra resources promised for the Probation Service were delivered by the Government so that community sentences could be enforced, he added.

Lord Woolf said this was not just a more open system but it meant guidance could be issued before rather than after new sentences came into force.

HOW THE SLIDING SCALE MIGHT WORK

For a murder that attracts a sentence of 15 years:

* Defendant pleads guilty at first reasonable opportunity - up to five years' discount. Sentence - 10 years.

* Defendant pleads guilty after the case has been set down for trial - up to three or four years. Sentence - 11 to 12 years.

* Pleads guilty at the door of the court or after the trial has begun. Sentence - 13 years, six months.

* Changes plea to guilty after jury retires - no reduction. Sentence 15 years.