The claim

“It is true that we are thinking of putting up the reduction to a half. It makes an enormous difference to costs, police time and the involvement of unnecessary preparations for trial if everybody leaves guilty pleas to the last possible moment.”
Ken Clarke, Justice Secretary, House of Commons debate, May 17, 2011

Cathy Newman checks it out:
All the sound and fury over Ken Clarke’s forthright views on rape rather drowned out debate over his proposals to halve jail sentences for criminals – including rapists – who plead guilty early. The Justice Secretary has made some extravagant claims about the merits of overhauling sentencing. Top of the list is the money saved by getting more offenders to plead guilty earlier in the judicial process. Given that his Department is facing 23 per cent cuts in its budget, there’s a lot resting on this. But are the savings as “enormous” as Clarke suggests?

The background

Prisons in England and Wales are grappling with their highest-ever number of inmates and – despite record spending – the Justice Secretary says: “We are not delivering what really matters: improved public safety through more effective punishments that reduce the prospect of criminals re-offending time and time again.”

Cue the proposal of a drastic shake-up of the system. Among other proposals, Ken Clarke’s proposed Green Paper includes curbs on remands to prison, diverting the mentally ill to healthcare facilities rather than jail, and – most controversially – awarding 50 per cent sentence discounts for those who plead guilty early.

Labour has branded the latter idea “nonsense”, with MP Sadiq Khan pointing out:  “It is not only Labour MPs who think this is nonsense, nor only judges or victims’ groups: the Lord Chancellor’s own Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses says that it is bonkers.”

Has the Justice Secretary gone bonkers, or are there benefits to reducing sentences by 50 per cent?

The analysis


Under current law, offenders who plead guilty at the earliest opportunity can see their sentence reduced by a maximum of 33 per cent. This law sees the average sentence reduced by 25 per cent.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) sells the idea of pushing the max up to 50 per cent as one that could save court time and costs, and spare victims a trial appearance.

Setting the bar this high is something that no other country has done. In fact, the Sentencing Council notes that in other common law jurisdictions, the largest discount on offer is around a third, with some offering up to 35 per cent.

“Malaysia are considering a 50 per cent reduction of the statutory maximum, though this is not understood to have been implemented,” adds the Sentencing Council.

The new maximum discount of 50 per cent would lower the average sentence by 34 per cent – almost 10 per cent more than the current average sentence discount.

It might not be in a criminal’s interest to plead guilty early, but if they do – they could get out of prison earlier. But who else benefits?


Cutting costs

If the MoJ does nothing to reform the system, it expects prisoner numbers to rise from 85,361 to 88,400.

Mr Clarke’s 50 percent idea could pull back that number by 3,400 within the next four years – and that would save the department £130m.

For a department facing 23 per cent cuts in its £3.7bn budget, it’s fair to say £130m is hardly the “enormous difference” Mr Clarke spoke of.

Guilty faces

In 2009, more than 10,000 cases pleaded guilty at the door of the court, the MoJ said. “Increasing the number of guilty pleas will reduce this number and therefore lead to efficiency gains in court,” the Green Paper concludes.

Yet the Sentencing Council said it couldn’t identify any research to support the idea that the volume of early guilty pleas would climb under the new rules.

Plus in an interview with Channel 4 News, Catherine Briddick, senior legal officer at Rights of Women, said that in offences where the conviction rate is low there would be little point in pleading guilty early on. Conviction rates for rape are woefully low at just 5.6 per cent.

Ms Briddick said: “A defendant who has been charged with a serious sexual offence like rape will be getting legal advice, and it’s the job of his solicitor to go through the evidence with him and the strength of it.

“If the case is one where the evidence is not so strong, or where the evidence could be challenged in court quite robustly, or it’s an area of law where conviction rates are very low then there is less impetus for the victim in pleading guilty at that stage.”

Rewarded for guilt

As you might expect, Louise Casey, the independent Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses, found that the public are “very resistant to the idea of an offender being ‘rewarded’ for admitting they were guilty of an offence”.

“Rather, they spontaneously suggested that defendants should be further penalised for not admitting guilt if they are subsequently found guilty,” Ms Casey’s research found.


Victim’s view


From the victim’s point of view, support for the idea is – understandably – thin on the ground.

The Commissioner said the idea offended many victims as it “underplays the harm that may have been caused to victims and can seem to be placing administrative efficiency over justice”.

She found only a small number of victims of more serious offences who were “more supportive if it spared them having to testify in court”.


Justice served?

The main concern is that it could cut the credibility of a sentence which has been set for the crime that has been committed.

The Sentencing Council also argues that the principles of sentencing may be threatened. “A guilty plea does not make the offence less serious and does not lower the offender’s culpability for the crime,” it said.

Ms Briddick told Channel 4 News that sentencing is important in two ways: “Firstly because it is about society saying that certain offences are very serious and that we can condemn, for example, all forms of violence against women.

“But it’s also very important for the victim, for the survivor, because it says to that person: yes, we understand that what you have experienced has been horrific and has been damaging. And this sentence is in some way, a small recognition of that.”

Cathy Newman’s verdict:

The £130m saved by halving jail sentences is hardly “enormous”, but given that the Government simply can’t afford to send any more people to jail, you can hardly blame the Justice Secretary for scraping around for every last cent.

However, the bigger worry is the lack of public support for the proposal.

No other country in the world discounts jail terms by 50 per cent. And perhaps the penny is starting to drop at the Ministry of Justice. A source there told me earlier today: “If you can’t carry public confidence in these proposals we will have to do something else.”

Sounds like Downing Street has succeeded in bringing the recalcitrant Justice Secretary into line.

The Analysis by Emma Thelwell