'Fewer attackers jailed' under new sentencing guidelines

Pa
Wednesday 13 October 2010 15:07 BST

Thousands of attackers will be allowed to walk free from court under proposed new guidelines for assault cases, the Sentencing Council said today.

The changes, which could come into effect by next spring, could lead to more than 3,000 fewer custodial sentences, save the prison service more than £16 million a year, and save the probation service £3 million a year.

But Lord Justice Leveson, chairman of the Sentencing Council which is consulting on the guidelines, insisted: "None of us are soft on crime."

The plans were "not driven by the Government" and its need to cut public spending, he said.

"That's not what's driving me," he said.

"What's moving me is to get the system right, fair, proportionate and understandable.

"I'm very keen there should be a consistency of approach, whether (defendants) are sentenced by a judge in Bristol, Birmingham, Basildon or Brighton."

The council said judges and magistrates have often not followed the existing guidelines and there has been a "general trend towards longer sentences for all assault offences" over the last 10 years.

Under today's proposals, the current "undue emphasis on premeditation" will be removed and the focus will switch to the harm caused and the culpability of the offender.

"If anything, I think there may be a slight increase at the very, very top, for the most serious offences of this type."

The council considered assault cases in the context of all violent offences and, for some of the lesser offences of assault, "there will be an increase in the non-custodial element", the judge said.

An impact assessment released by the council showed:

:: For common assault, there would be between 1,000 and 2,800 fewer custodial sentences, between 300 and 700 fewer community orders, between 1,000 and 2,700 additional fines, and between 300 and 800 additional conditional discharges.

This would lead to a need for between 120 and 330 fewer prison places, saving the prison service between £4 million and £10 million a year, and also save the probation service between £0.8 million and £1.9 million a year.

:: For assaults on a police officer, there would be between 200 and 700 fewer custodial sentences and between 200 and 500 fewer community orders.

This would lead to between 20 and 60 fewer prison places being needed, saving the prison service between £0.7 million and £1.9 million a year and saving the probation service between £0.6 million and £1.5 million a year.

:: For assault with intent to resist arrest, there would be between 15 and 50 fewer custodial sentences, with a reduction in the use of community orders of between 10 and 35.

This would lead to between five and 10 fewer prison places being needed, saving the prison service between £100,000 and £260,000 a year, but increasing the probation service's costs by between £30,000 and £90,000 a year.

:: For assault occasioning actual bodily harm, there would be between 300 and 900 fewer custodial sentences each year and a reduction in the use of community orders of between 0 and 50.

This would lead to a need for between 70 and 190 fewer prison places, saving the prison service between £2 million and £6 million and saving the probation service between £0 and £230,000.

:: The average sentence for defendants convicted of grievous bodily harm (GBH) with intent is expected to increase slightly, creating a demand for between 30 and 50 additional prison places at a cost of between £0.9 million and £1.5 million a year.

The probation service's costs are also expected to increase by between £8,000 and £14,000, due to changes in the length of time offenders spend on licence.

:: For GBH, there would be between 10 and 30 fewer custodial sentences, reducing the need for prison places by between 10 and 30.

The prison service could expect to save between £240,000 and £900,000 but the probation service's costs could rise by between £100,000 and £180,000.

Lord Justice Leveson added: "If this works, there will be less use of custody."

But, in reference to Justice Secretary Ken Clarke's plans for a rehabilitation revolution and a reduction in the use of short jail terms, the top judge insisted the independent council "ignored all the words coming out of the Ministry of Justice".

"We did not start out this exercise to reflect upon the concerns the Government has expressed," he said.

Lord Justice Leveson said the new draft guideline for ABH was condensed into just three A4 pages.

"Somebody who is a victim of assault could look at these three pages and see how the judge has worked it (the sentence) out," he said, adding: "The legislation surrounding sentencing is too complex."

The review will impact upon a large number of cases, with 84,000 offenders sentenced for assaults in 2008, and the "clearer and more coherent decision making process" could be used as the basis for all future guidelines.

The draft guidelines also call for better management of "the expectations of victims ahead of any sentence being passed".

Three of the four current categories of ABH include descriptions of premeditated assault with different levels of injury, but many spontaneous assaults, including drunken violence in the street, do not easily fit into those categories.

Under today's proposals for assault cases, the court will now determine sentences by considering "the offender's culpability in committing the offence and the harm caused, or intended to be caused," to the victim.

The council said judges and magistrates have often not followed the existing guidelines and there has been a "general trend towards longer sentences for all assault offences" over the last 10 years.

Between 1999 and 2008, the average custodial sentence for ABH increased by 39% and there have been "pronounced declines in sentences of less than six months' imprisonment".

Sentences for grievous bodily harm (GBH) offences and common assault also rose over the same period, up 17% and 11% respectively.

"A widely held view is that the existing guideline places rather undue emphasis on the presence of premeditation which can make it difficult to apply the guideline properly to every case," the consultation said.

"The council went back to first principles in relation to crimes of violence in developing this guideline with the principal aim of promoting greater consistency of sentencing and thereby increasing public confidence in sentencing."

The draft guidelines still include starting points for sentences, in order to promote greater consistency, but the principle that they are designed for first-time offenders who have been found guilty after a trial has been scrapped.

These were "of limited application for the majority of offenders who come through the courts, as they are typically repeat offenders, with previous convictions," the council said.

The guidelines also include domestic violence as an aggravating factor when judges are considering the sentence.

The 12-week public consultation on the new guidelines will end on January 5 next year.

The Criminal Justice Alliance, which represents almost 50 organisations, said the proposals would "halt the drift towards longer sentences and protect scarce resources in the prison and probation services".

Campaign director Jon Collins said: "It is a huge step forward that the expected impact of these proposals, both financially and on the criminal justice system, have been set out in full for public examination.

"Clear guidance like this can promote consistency and prevent a postcode lottery in sentencing, helping to make sure that offenders receive the sentence that they deserve."

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