A fortnight ago, Prisons Minister Andrew Selous told the Justice Committee that "work on sentencing is ongoing this year, in terms of a consultation to which the Ministry of Justice has committed". Yesterday, in the course of answering an urgent question on violence in prison, Selous told the House of Commons that the Government "are currently consulting on sentencing issues".
But there seems to be nothing in the way of a formal consultation underway, at least in terms of an exercise that meets the principles on consultation that the Government launched in January.
There is a working group on problem solving courts involving the Lord Chief Justice and others, one of whose aims is “to encourage innovation in the use of judicial disposals and improve compliance with the orders of the court". Charlie Taylor’s review is also now looking at sentencing in the youth court- something the Sentencing Council, somewhat perversely, is also about to consult upon.
But unless I have missed something there is nothing along the lines of John Halliday's review of sentencing that took place in the early 2000’s. Selous’s colleague Dominic Raab is apparently holding a series of expert roundtables to look at the subject but to what end is not clear. He personally seems to favour a harsher approach but in view of the pressure on prisons and the MoJ budget, the scope for locking up more people for longer is as unaffordable as it is undesirable.
Assuming that ministers may be open to reforms that moderate our comparatively severe sanctioning response to crimes, what could they consider? I have argued that punishment levels should be reduced for women, young adults and people with mental health problems, as well as the oldest offenders. I also suggested that the Sentencing Council be asked to scale down sentencing levels for crimes across the board. But what other more specific measures could be put on the table? Here are five.
1. Scrap the plan to widen the scope for Attorney General References, the mechanism by which "unduly lenient" sentences can be increased. Numbers may be small but their effect is greater, pushing up the going rate for particular offences. It’s true that the Conservative manifesto contained a proposal to enable a wider range of sentences to be challenged “to tackle those cases where judges get it wrong” but it’s surely no longer a priority.
2. Introduce the possibility of releasing non-violent offenders from prison after serving one third point of their sentence with the period up to the half way converted to community payback. This would ease pressure on the prisons while putting more work the way of Community Rehabilitation Companies whose expected volumes of work have not materialised.
3. Enable prisoners to earn earlier release through consistent engagement with education, treatment or work in prison. Justice Secretary Michael Gove is much taken with the Colchester Military Corrective Training Centre where the Commanding Officer has a great deal of discretion over release.
4. Pilot a scheme for prisoners with drug dependency problems to serve the final portion of the custodial part of their sentence in a residential rehabilitation centre.
5. Introduce a presumption of suspending sentences of less than 12 months – a proposal made by Nicky Padfield in the latest version of the Criminal Law Review.Alongside these sentencing changes , moving forward with the agenda of devolving budgets to a more regional or local level could also introduce a positive new dynamic into the criminal justice process. If Sadiq Khan had to meet the costs of short prison sentences served by Londoners from his budget, he might well look hard to develop more in the way of measures which could reduce the need for their imposition.