Prisons in England and Wales are facing a major crisis, with serious questions being raised about whether they can accommodate the current population safely, let alone help to reduce re-offending. Ten years ago, the Sentencing Council was conceived as a way of helping to control the growth of prison numbers. But, by the time it started work in 2010, its objectives were limited to making sentencing more effective, predictable and consistent.
Most of the Council’s work has involved the production of guidelines which require courts to take a step by step approach to sentencing, starting at the same point, and taking into account the same kinds of factors in assessing the seriousness of a particular offence. Despite some reluctance on the part of judges and magistrates, guidelines are widely accepted – unsurprisingly given the considerable range of discretion that still exists, and the courts’ ability to sentence outside the guidelines if it is in the interest of justice to do so. But concerns have been expressed that the Council has not done enough to challenge increasing sentence lengths, or to give more explicit assistance to courts in determining when offences are so serious that only prison will do.
While the Council may have helped to make sentencing more transparent, consistent and proportionate, it has neglected its potential to curb the ineffective use of imprisonment, adopting a narrow focus to its work. In this report, we recommend that both the membership of the Council, and its range of responsibilities, are widened.