Automatically discounted prison sentences for criminals who plead guilty at the earliest opportunity may be abolished in a bid to secure public confidence, it has been reported today.
Lord chancellor Robert Buckland QC is said to be studying proposals to end the current practice of giving convicted criminals a third off their sentences if they plead guilty the first time they are asked in court. It is believed that the policy is likely to initially focus on murder and manslaughter, but could be extended to other serious offences.
A report in the Telegraph said ministers fear that the practice may be undermining confidence in the criminal justice system and is being exploited by offenders caught in the act but who know they can reduce their sentence by pleading guilty.
Rules for sentences imposed after 1 June 2017 allow a maximum one-third reduction if an indication of guilty plea is given at the first hearing. A sliding scale of reduction – starting at one quarter – applies thereafter.
Lawyers have said changing the rules around guilty pleas would be ‘short sighted’, drive up prosecution costs and increase the court backlog.
A Law Society spokesperson said: ‘There should be a consistent approach in giving credit for a guilty plea irrespective of the strength of the evidence against the defendants. The advantages to victims and witnesses of not having to testify at trial and the public interest in saving time and money on investigations and trials are not diminished, even in a so-called “overwhelming evidence” case.
‘In the absence of credit for a guilty plea a defendant may conclude that they have nothing to lose by going to trial - leading to victims having to testify and costly investigations and trials.’
Figures published in June showed there are 41,000 outstanding Crown court cases and 484,000 cases outstanding in the magistrates' courts. The goverment has announced 10 so-called ‘Nightingale Courts’ to improve the situation, which was exacerbated by coronavirus.