Is Lord Woolf’s Sentencing Guidelines Council undermining the intentions of Parliament?
David Green, 21 September 2004
There has been a lot of press interest in the proposal of the Sentencing Guidelines Council (SGC) to give sentence discounts of up to one-third for pleading guilty to a crime. However, a second set of draft guidelines (released on the same day) proposes lighter sentences of up to one quarter merely because the 2003 Criminal Justice Act increased the period of supervision after early release.
Before the 2003 Act, a criminal sentenced to between 12 months and under 4 years in jail would be eligible for early release at the half-way stage, subject to a period of supervision under licence up to the three-quarter point of the sentence. Now, the criminal can still be released early after serving only half the sentence but must remain under licence until the end of the original sentence. Being released under licence can amount to very little. Often it means no more than a short conversation every 2-3 weeks with a hard-pressed probation officer at the local probation department.
Yet, the SGC regards the longer period under licence as ‘more severe’ because, it says, ‘the period in custody and under supervision will be for the whole of the sentence set by the court’. (paragraph 3.1.2) For this reason, it argues that sentences should in future be up to one quarter less.
Yes, it really is saying that sentences will be ‘more severe’ because the period of supervision by the probation service after early release will continue until the end of the original sentence. Not beyond the original sentence; just up to the end of the sentence imposed by the court. It was obviously Parliament’s intention to increase supervision after early release, but Lord Woolf and the SGC have seized the opportunity to reduce the time actually served in prison, thus reducing the total period of effective supervision.
According to the Home Office, the average prisoner carries out about 140 offences per year. How effective is supervision in the community as a method of protecting the public? Only last week the Youth Justice Board published the initial findings of its Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme (ISSP). As the name implies, it is the most intensive community sentence now available and can involve 25 hours a week of activity for three months, with possible tagging overnight. After only 12 months from the start of the programme, 85% of participants had been convicted of at least one more crime. Moreover, 53% of offenders did not even complete the programme.
The vast majority of criminals released under licence will not have to take part in anything like the level of activity expected under ISSP, but Lord Woolf thinks that extended supervision following early release is ‘more severe’ and should lead to shorter sentences.
If the guidelines are implemented, the result will be much less protection from recalcitrant, hardened offenders. Prison may not be very effective as a method of rehabilitation, but unlike any community sentence, it does prevent criminals from stealing cars and breaking into houses.