MPs have warned that proposals to incentivise defendants to plead guilty at an earlier stage could lead to a need for a further 4,000 prison places.
The Sentencing Council have proposed that the maximum credit for a guilty plea (one-third) will only be available where the defendant has pleaded at ‘the first stage of proceedings,’ as opposed to the current position of ‘at the first reasonable opportunity’. For summary offences this will mean the first appearance at the Magistrates’ court; for either-way offences it is defined as up to and including the allocation hearing (in practice this will usually also be the first appearance at the Magistrates’ Court); and for indictable-only offences the first hearing in the Crown Court. The Sentencing Council further recommended that the maximum credit for a guilty plea entered after the first stage of proceedings be reduced from 25% to 20%.
A new report by the House of Commons’ Justice Committee noted that a ‘significant minority’ of respondents to the Council’s consultation predicted that a reduction in credit would lead to more defendants proceeding to trial. Defendants convicted after trial would of course not be entitled to a sentence reduction for a guilty plea; the corresponding increase in length of custodial sentences accounts for the estimate that up to 4,000 additional prison places may be needed. The report states:
… the potentially serious impact of the new guideline on the prison population is a matter of some concern to us; that population now stands at around 84,500, and prisons are widely perceived as being under intense strain. To increase the prison population over time by up to 4,000 would involve the construction of around four large new prisons.’
The draft guideline states that it is ‘directed only at defendants wishing to enter a guilty plea and nothing in the guideline should create pressure on defendants to plead guilty’. The MPs observe that the guideline will be successful if it increases the proportion of guilty pleas entered at the earliest stage whilst not impacting on the overall proportion of guilty pleas. Such an argument is disingenuous, wrote Matthew Stanbury for the Justice Gap earlier this year:
The aim of achieving more and earlier guilty pleas faces insuperable barriers, as well as principled objections. The simple fact is that many guilty people are not ready to plead guilty at what is deemed the first opportunity, for various reasons. They may not have been served with the evidence, they may want to continue enjoying bail; or they simply might not be ready to face up to responsibility for their offending.
Bob Neill, Conservative MP and chair of the committee, highlighted concerns that the Sentencing Council consultation paper does not mention the potential impact on disabled defendants. He recommended that the Council undertake a comprehensive equality impact analysis in this regard. ‘We recommend that the Sentencing Council delay the finalisation and implementation of the new guideline until it has undertaken and published further research into the factors that influence a defendant’s decision about whether and when to plead guilty, both in the magistrates’ court and the Crown Court,’ Neill said.