Sentences could be slashed for early guilty plea even if overwhelming evidence


Criminals will have their sentences slashed by up to a third for pleading guilty even if there is an overwhelming case against them under new proposals.

Defendants who admit offences are entitled to a reduction in their punishment, but the current system gives judges the power to subtract a smaller chunk than would otherwise have been available if the prosecution case is particularly strong.

However, new draft guidelines state that the strength of the evidence should no longer be taken into account when deciding the level of discount.

The Sentencing Council said it recognised that the move could be perceived as "controversial", and the removal of the option to withhold the maximum reduction may be seen as an "erosion of judicial discretion".

However, the body argued that the benefits from a guilty plea - such as sparing witnesses the anxiety and uncertainty of attending court to give evidence and saving public time and money - still apply when there is an overwhelming case.

A consultation document setting out the proposals said: "There is an understandable reluctance to provide those who are guilty with a 'reward' for pleading guilty, especially when they have little or no prospect of being acquitted.

"However, it is important to recognise that the guilty plea reduction is in place to provide an incentive and not a reward. For it to work effectively, it is important that it is a clear and unqualified incentive to the defendant."

It claimed the draft guideline provides a "much tighter framework" and much less scope for offenders to "play the system" and still get the maximum discount.

Under the proposals, the maximum reduction available for admitting guilt will remain at  the current level of one third - but the circumstances when an offender can qualify will be more tightly defined.

The point by which defendants must plead guilty to receive the full reduction will change from "at the first reasonable opportunity" to "at the first stage of the proceedings".

For adults, this would be entering a plea up to and including the first magistrates or crown court hearing - depending on the seriousness of the offence.

For those who plead later, the highest possible reduction will be cut from a quarter to a fifth. A sliding scale will then apply down to a maximum of a 10th on the first day of a trial.

The council said it will mean more guilty pleas are entered earlier in the court process as offenders will be in no doubt that they will face a longer sentence if they do not admit their culpability early on.

It said research and case law suggests that the current guidelines, which were issued in 2007, are not always applied consistently and levels of reductions in some cases appear to be higher than recommended.

Sentencing Council chairman Lord Justice Treacy said: "We want those who have committed crimes to admit their guilt as early as possible.

"When they do, it means victims and witnesses can be reassured that the offender has accepted responsibility for what they have done and that they are spared having to appear at court to testify.

"It also means that the police and Crown Prosecution Service can use their resources more efficiently to investigate and prosecute other cases."

The guideline will apply to criminal cases in England and Wales and covers both adult and youth offenders. 

The council stressed nothing in the guidelines "should be taken to suggest that an accused person who is not guilty of an offence should be pressured to plead guilty".

Lucy Hastings, of charity Victim Support, said it is "critical" the process is properly explained to victims.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said no decisions have been made.

She added: "The changes in the consultation would lead to stricter sentences as those pleading guilty later in the process will get a smaller reduction. There would be no change to the reduction for those pleading guilty at the earliest point in the process.

"Following the spending review, there is no financial need to cut prison numbers over the next five years. Protecting the public will always be our top priority."