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The Sentencing Council and criminal justice: leading role or bit part player?

Rob Allen
23 Dec 2020

In September 2020 “sweeping reforms” to sentencing were announced in a White Paper – “A Smarter Approach to Sentencing”. These reforms give effect to Boris Johnson’s manifesto guarantee of “tougher sentencing for criminals”, though they are offset by some more constructive proposals for responding to lower level crime. What is surprising is the lack of an evidence base behind many of these reforms, and the very limited role played by expert bodies and organisations in the development of perhaps the most significant sentencing reforms for 20 years.

One body that could play a much needed moderating role in criminal justice is the Sentencing Council for England and Wales – the independent organisation set up in 2010 to promote greater transparency and consistency in sentencing. Under its existing remit, the Sentencing Council’s main role is developing sentencing guidelines for courts and monitoring their use, but it also has responsibility for promoting awareness among the public about the realities of sentencing and publishing information about sentencing practice.

But its remit is arguably too narrow. On the Council’s watch, there has been significant prison sentence inflation – the average custodial sentence for all offences has increased 40% in the last ten years to nineteen and a half months. Unless steps are taken to lower the custodial sentencing rate and reverse sentence inflation, the prison and probation system could find itself under considerable pressure. This report discusses the role the Sentencing Council currently plays and makes recommendations for how it could play a greater role in developing more effective sentencing law in the future.