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Commissioner Vera Baird: ‘shorten sentences for guilty pleas to protect victims from the stress of trials but guarantee legal advice for defendants to ensure they are real guilty pleas’

16th June 2016

Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria, Vera Baird QC welcomed Wednesday’s Justice Committee report commenting on new Sentencing Council guidelines. The guidelines propose to continue allowing judges to reduce the sentence by a third for a defendant who pleads guilty at the first opportunity. However, they recommend reducing from a quarter to a fifth the discount for a later guilty plea. This is designed to incentivise defendants who are going to plead guilty to do so as early as possible, principally in the interests of victims and consistent with the Commissioner’s declared intention always to ‘Put Victims First”.

However, the Committee raises concerns shared by Commissioner Baird, firstly that vulnerable defendants such as those with learning difficulties, mental health conditions,under the influence of drink or drug withdrawal or simply afraid of being convicted and getting a harsh sentence, could plead guilty to obtain the discount when they know that they are not guilty. A clear further risk, given the technicalities of some offence definitions, is that they may think that they are guilty, perhaps because of the approach taken to them by the police or others, when technically they are not.

Commissioner Baird, said: “The principle of reducing the sentence for guilty pleas is not a new one – what’s new here is a proposed change to court rules to encourage more defendants to plead guilty earlier. Clearly if people are guilty they should say so quickly to save victims from what can be the very damaging stress of worrying about a court appearance, especially in the case of offences which cause the greatest harm. Even in cases with a lesser impact, there is usually worry and at the very least potential inconvenience for all witnesses. The earlier a plea is given, the sooner victims and witnesses can resume their ordinary lives without worry.There is the obvious added benefit that an early guilty plea will save the maximum public time and money by removing the need for investigations and trials at the earliest possible stage.

“However, there are risks of what is intended as a sensible incentive in fact persuades or coerces a defendant gets into pleading guilty. It is essential that legal advice is available to ensure that guilty pleas are appropriate and also to explain to the defendant that a later plea will result in a cut to the discount.

“Regardless of the plea, victims and their families must continue to have the opportunity to make a Victim Personal Statement – describing the impact of the offence on them. This sensible arrangement cannot be allowed inadvertently to exclude the victim’s voice from the court process.”

The committee also expressed concerns that this change may increase the prison population an issue which Commissioner Baird suggests may need further scrutiny.