An independent group of experts has called for a ‘fundamental reassessment of the policy and practice of sentencing’ in a wide-reaching examination of the treatment of victims and perpetrators of serious crimes. The Independent Commission into the Experience of Victims and Long-Term Prisoners chaired by Bishop James Jones, former head of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, published its findings this week, including that victims of crime feel ‘overlooked, disregarded, neglected, marginalised and further traumatised’ by the criminal justice system.
The report, which also centres on the experiences of people imprisoned for the most serious crimes, says that sentencing for serious offences has ‘lost its way’, and is not working to rehabilitate prisoners or offer redress or resolution to victims.
The purpose of the commission has been to initiate a debate into sentencing, which has become gradually more punitive over the last two decades. As of June 2021 the number of people serving prison sentences of ten years or more had almost trebled in 20 years, and over the same period the number of people sentenced to 20 years or more had quadrupled. The average minimum term imposed for murder rose from 13 years in 2000 to 20 years in 2020, and while the average time spent in prison by someone sentenced to life in 1979 was nine years, by 2019 that figure had doubled. The Commission says this has happened ‘without public knowledge or understanding’ of this shift.
In order to counter this trend, the report calls for a review by the Law Commission into the sentencing framework for serious offences, a strengthened role for the Sentencing Council, a Citizen’s Assembly on sentencing policy and a consideration of sentencing by the Justice and Home Affairs Select Committees.
The Commission also makes several recommendations around the wider Criminal Justice System, including an expanded role for restorative justice, and an end to the injustice faced by prisoners serving indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection (IPP).
Speaking on the Today programme on Radio 4, the Chair of the Commission Reverend James Jones said: ‘Understandably when there is a terrible crime, the natural reaction of the public is to want the person to be found, to be punished, and for society to be protected, but the purposes of sentencing are more than just punishment and protection, they’re about reducing crime, rehabilitation and reform.
The truth is that unless we do pay more attention to the reform and rehabilitation we don’t make society safer, because if a person comes out of prison as dangerous as when they went in, then society is less protected.’
When asked about recent YouGov polling that showed two thirds of Britons don’t think current sentencing is harsh enough, Reverend Jones responded that we need a new national debate on sentencing ‘where we don’t just give our view in the aftermath of a serious crimes but we stand back and say what’s going to be best for the victim, what’s going to be best for the offender, and what’s going to be best for society.’