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The Sentencing Bill

SENTENCING THE BILL

This year, RJ4All will be directing its campaigning efforts towards three specific bills. We have been most vocal about the Victims and Prisoners Bill, having submitted a detailed proposed amendment of the Bill which was then debated in Parliament.  

In addition to the Victims and Prisoners Bill, RJ4All will be focusing on two the Criminal Justice Bill and the Sentencing Bill, the other two key pieces of legislation relating to criminal justice. These bills were all introduced following the King’s Speech delivered by King Charles on 7th November 2023, outlining the government’s agenda for the upcoming parliamentary year, with a focus on economic growth, societal strengthening, and crime reduction.  

Introduced on 14th November 2023, the Sentencing Bill proposes changes to the current criminal sentencing framework, following on from the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.  

 

This Bill focuses on three areas:

    • The sentencing of those convicted of murder or sexual offences. 
    • The suspension of custodial sentences. 
    • The release of offenders.

 It is currently being debated in the House of Commons and has reached the Committee stage, where the Bill is examined in detail and any amendments are considered.  

The Bill follows a commitment by the Conservative government to provide tougher sentences and “better protect the British public from the worst offenders” while “helping low risk offenders escape the merry-go-around of short prison terms”. 

A Summary of the Bill  

Here are the key takeaways from the Bill:  

    1. Whole life orders (WLOs) will become mandatory for certain types of murder, except in exceptional circumstances.

    2. The special sentence for offenders of particular concern (SOPC) to be imposed for rape and other serious sexual offences: these offenders will spend their full custodial term in prison behind bars, marking up the average sentence for rape by 50%, since the Government came to power in 2010.

    3. Presumption that custodial sentences of 12 months or less be suspended: a suspended sentence means that the person does not have to go to prison, provided that they commit no further offences and fulfil any requirements imposed for the duration of their sentence.

    4. Extension of the Home Detention Curfew to certain prisoners serving four years more, allowing them to be released (subject to an electronically-monitored curfew) up to 180 days before their automatic release date.  

A central concern of the Bill is tackling domestic abuse. Alex Chalk, Secretary of State for Justice, said: “We want domestic abuse victims to know this Government is on their side, so we will do everything possible to protect them from those who cause harm, or threaten to do so. That’s why we are ensuring that judges retain full discretion to hand down prison sentences to domestic abusers  – to give victims the confidence to rebuild their lives knowing their tormentors are safely behind bars.” 

Crucially for women and girls’ safety, changes to shorter jail terms will not apply to those facing the court for breaching a court order, e.g. a restraining or stalking prevention order.  

Given RJ4All focused work on rooting out gender-based violence, our attention to this aspect of the Bill is higher. Here is also a summary of our previous position in relation to domestic violence, published in the Justice Gap by our Founder, Dr. Theo Gavrielides.  

How the Bill was received 

Organisations for prison reform have welcomed the extension of eligibility for Home Detention Curfew, a policy that many have long advocated.  

The presumption against short custodial sentences has been celebrated by campaigners for prison reform: the legislation has been a long time coming. However, the probation service is already under unprecedented pressure, and many have expressed concerns about the additional stress it will face due to these changes.  

Other organisations have stated that the Bill will have limited impact on high demand for prison places. The Prison Reform Trust has observed that government promises to “toughen” sentences have not been considered in terms of their impact on stretched prison capacity. Their statement points out that the proposed legislation does not adequately address the current capacity crisis, which has brought the prison system close to breaking point.  

Advocates for victims of domestic abuse have praised the exceptions to the presumption against short sentences, identifying those who pose a risk of psychological and physical harm. However, many remain concerned that the Probation Service lacks the resources and training to ensure the identification of abusers.

The Role of Restorative Justice

Restorative justice principles may be applied as a means of reinforcing the Bill’s main objectives, specifically reducing recidivism for those with suspended sentences. While this provision is barely used, statute already allows for the use of restorative justice in certain cases of deferred sentencing, allowing judges to suspend sentencing to test how the convicted person responds to restorative justice approaches. Where it is deemed inappropriate to defer sentencing to allow for a restorative justice activity, the sentencer may decide to recommend that restorative justice takes place as part of a community or suspended sentence.  

Restorative justice is available for all offences, at any time, but may play a key role in the context of a suspended sentence. It can be a channel through which the convicted person can understand the impacts of their crime, and take responsibility for their actions.  

This Bill’s concern with domestic violence is an opportunity to consider how restorative principles can be applied in a way that fully protects the survivor. Restorative justice involves a holistic shift in the way we think about justice, enabling us to think about the wider implications of crime. For example, domestic violence takes on a much more complex significance when considered through a restorative justice lens. Our founder, Theo Gavrielides, describes incidents of domestic abuse as a wider “social justice failure,” and therefore must be treated as such.  

While there are many factors to take into account when considering the role of restorative justice in domestic abuse situations, for example the justified concern that victim-survivors will be pressured into taking part, RJ can offer helpful victim support services. From a safe space to discussion circles, victim empowerment remains paramount in restorative justice priorities.  

Conclusion 

The Sentencing Bill will bring in a range of measures, some more welcome than others. While some aspects of the Bill continue the damaging trend of increasing jail terms (particularly the increased use of WLOs), other measures are eminently sensible, particularly the presumption to suspend short sentences.  

However, as with plenty of other Parliamentary legislation, this Bill addresses the aftermath of crime, rather than going deeper to consider its root causes. Restorative justice, on the other hand, offers a way of locating the crime in its environment, offering a more sustainable and reparative approach to dealing with criminal actions. The Sentencing Bill may better achieve its goals by incorporating restorative justice procedures where appropriate.  

View our three policy priorities

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