National sentencing debate needed ‘to fix dysfunctional debate’

A national debate on sentencing is needed, MPs said, as they warned that public debate was becoming trapped in a “dysfunctional and reactionary cycle”.

The call comes from the cross-party Justice Committee in a new 61-page report, which calls for serious engagement with the public from the Government to foster a better understanding of the complexities of sentencing.

The committee, chaired by senior Tory MP and barrister Sir Bob Neil, warned there was a “significant gap” in public information about sentencing, even after years of what MPs called a “hardening” of opinion about issue.

MPs commissioned a poll of more than 2,000 adults in England and Wales to inform the report, as well as a series of three half-day engagement sessions to discuss public views on sentencing.

The poll, carried out between late February and early March this year, found that only 22% of respondents knew that Parliament was responsible for setting maximum sentences.

Improvements to open justice, such as the broadcasting of sentencing observations, need to be built on, including through some of the recommendations outlined in this report

Sir Bob Neal

It also found that a significant number of respondents wanted tougher sentences for many serious offences.

The report comes as the government remains under pressure over overcrowding in British prisons, with just over 88,000 people currently in prison in England and Wales.

MPs warned that the persistent view among voters that the sentence is not severe enough represents “a significant long-term public policy challenge that needs to be addressed”.

“Our own poll shows that the majority of the public support further toughening of sentences for the most serious criminal offences,” Sir Bob said.

“It is vital that policymakers adopt a consistent and principled response to maintaining public trust in response to challenging the public's position on the severity of sentences.

“Rather than simply adopting a reactive approach to sentencing policy, the government should develop a structured mechanism for public participation in sentencing policy.”

MPs recommend that ministers should seek to actively engage with the public about sentencing policy, suggesting the use of deliberative engagement exercises.

The report also suggests that the government should set up an independent sentencing advisory panel to consider proposed changes to sentencing policy and provide advice to ministers.

Sir Bob said: “Everyone involved in or responsible for the criminal justice system must take the task of safeguarding public trust extremely seriously.

“Removing unnecessary complexity in sentencing must also be prioritized to facilitate improved public dialogue.

“Improvements to open justice, such as the broadcasting of sentencing observations, need to be built on, including through some of the recommendations outlined in this report.

“Even if it is not possible to say that direct contact with or information about the criminal justice system will necessarily lead to improved trust, it is undoubtedly a public good to encourage the public to be more aware of the justice being served in their name .”

Elsewhere in the report, MPs call for all sentencing comments to be made public and that victims and victims' families should have “ready and free” access to sentencing comments.

The commission also said offenders should have better access to sentencing information, as well as receive a hard copy of judges' sentencing remarks.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “The Government has increased sentences for serious offences, including child cruelty and causing death by dangerous driving, and is planning to change the law to make rapists serve their entire sentences in prison and make them life sentences orders foul killers.

“We've also made it easier for the public to understand judges' sentencing decisions by allowing their comments to be aired publicly, building trust in the criminal justice system.”