Public debate on sentencing 'dysfunctional' say MPs

Only 22% of respondents to a poll identified that Parliament was responsible for setting the maximum sentence in law for a criminal offence.

In its report  ‘Public opinion and understanding of sentencing’, the House of Commons Justice Committee concluded the persistence of the view among the public that the system is not severe enough, represents a “significant long-term public policy challenge that needs to be addressed”.

The Committee’s report recommended that the Government should seek to actively engage the public on sentencing policy but should do so in a structured and methodologically rigorous fashion. It said that deliberative engagement exercises with members of the public should form part of the policy development process.

Policy proposals on sentencing it added should be subject to independent evaluation, so that the resourcing implications are evaluated before they are enacted.

It called on the Government to establish an independent advisory panel on sentencing to consider proposed changes to sentencing policy and to provide advice to ministers.

The Inquiry

As part of the inquiry, the Committee commissioned a public polling exercise in which 2,057 adults in England and Wales were asked about their knowledge and views on sentencing. The Committee also worked with Involve to facilitate a deliberative engagement exercise in which 25 members of the public met over three half-day sessions to discuss the aims of sentencing.

In terms of public understanding, both the polling and the public dialogue indicated that a significant portion of the public do not know which bodies are responsible for deciding sentencing policy. Only 22% of respondents to the poll identified that Parliament was responsible for setting the maximum sentence in law for a criminal offence. The participants in the public dialogue indicated that they were unsure which institutions had responsibility for deciding the framework that sentencers apply in individual cases. The Committee expressed concern that this can give rise to an accountability gap, whereby the public is unclear as to the Government’s responsibility in relation to sentencing.

Hardening of public opinion

It is widely recognised that there has been a perceptible hardening of public opinion towards serious crime since the 1990s. Successive governments have increased the maximum sentences for a number of serious offences, often in response to public campaigns arising from individual cases. The polling indicated that there is significant public support for increasing the custodial sentences for murder, rape and domestic burglary. For example, 18% of respondents said that the starting point for the most serious rape cases should be a whole life order (the current starting point is 15 years), and 33% said the starting point for the most serious cases of domestic burglary should be a 10-year custodial sentence (the current starting point is three years custody).

A clear finding from both the polling and the public dialogue was that one of the most important purposes of sentencing should be to provide justice for the victim. 56% of respondents to our poll ranked “ensuring the victim had secured justice” as one of their top three factors that should influence a sentence. In the public dialogue, there was a consensus that “providing justice for victims” should be a purpose of sentencing, and almost half placed it second in order of priority behind protecting the public. Accordingly, the Committee recommends that the Government review the statutory purposes of sentencing to consider whether greater emphasis should be placed on achieving justice for the victims of crime and their families.

Their overall conclusion is that there is a need for national debate on sentencing. The inquiry has highlighted that the public debate on sentencing is stuck in a dysfunctional and reactive cycle. There needs to be greater public knowledge and understanding of current sentencing practice, of evidence on the effectiveness of different sentencing options, and the resource implications of sentences in order to improve the quality of public discourse on sentencing.

The Committee says that it is incumbent on all policymakers and opinion-shapers to play a role in shaping a more constructive debate and to seek greater consensus on the issues.