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December 7, 2013

Let the punishment fit the crime

A fair criminal justice system is one where mistakes can be easily, and fairly painlessly, corrected.  The worst mistakes are wrongful convictions, but wrong sentences can also have devastating consequences on people’s lives.  If individuals are imprisoned, when they should have got a community sentence, or are sentenced to more years in prison than is proportionate for their crimes, the harm done is immense.  But I have long worried that the appeals system works less well in reality than it does in theory.  I have met young offenders in jail who appear to have received over-long sentences.  Youth offending officers have told me of cases which they would have liked to challenge.  But, in some areas, yot officers said local solicitors rarely appealed sentences.  These were just isolated anecdotes, so I asked Dr Jessica Jacobson to look at the figures and interview some practitioners.  The results (in this review) suggest that there are real problems with the system.  Everyone has a right to appeal their sentence but the barriers to doing so can be high.  One problem is that lawyers are paid very little to prepare appeals.  Solicitors are paid only £170 to prepare an appeal to a Magistrates’ Court sentence.   Lawyers appealing from the Crown Court are paid by the hour but the rate has not gone up in 10 years.  So lawyers can end up earning very very little on appeals. Less scrupulous lawyers may only pay lip service in telling clients of their right to appeal.

It’s all too easy to persuade offenders not to appeal.  If they appeal from the magistrates’ court, their sentence could go up; if they were given a short prison sentence, it may be nearly over by the time the appeal comes to court; and if they lose their appeal they can be faced with paying £250 towards costs.   And many offenders, however unfair they think their sentence, can’t face the court process again.

It looks as if the odds are stacked against lawyers or their clients launching appeals against sentence.  But we don’t know nearly enough. Transform Justice would like to commission some in depth research on criminal appeals to sentence, so watch this space.