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October 27, 2013

Sentencing consistency…does it matter?

Lord Leveson gave the Howard League lecture this week on consistency in sentencing, particularly citing the work of the Sentencing Council which he chairs.  I think the Sentencing Council is undoubtedly a good thing.  And the methods it uses are pretty rigorous for creating new guidelines for offences.  But I wonder if it has actually produced more consistency in sentencing and fewer disproportionate sentences.  When I looked in detail at the use of custody for under 18 year olds, there was undoubtedly some post code sentencing, with Merthyr Tydfil having the highest rate of custody (the highest proportion of those convicted being sentenced to imprisonment) in England and Wales for many years, while Newcastle was near the lowest.  One problem is that sentencing guidelines are very broad, so one area can in general be more punitive than another without ever transgressing the guidelines.  The other problem is that the appeals system creaks.  For sentencing to achieve consistency, people needs to routinely appeal disproportionate sentences.  Which they don’t for a variety of reasons, including the threat of having to pay some costs if they fail, and sometimes because they can’t face lengthening the court process.  To achieve better consistency, barriers to appealing sentences need to be radically reduced.