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UK: Sentencing Council publishes new guidelines on sentencing children and young people and offenders who plead guilty

7th March 2017

The Sentencing Council (England & Wales) has published two new sentencing guidelines, to come into effect from 1st June 2017. One deals with how courts should make a reduction in sentence for offenders who plead guilty, and the other deals with the approach they should take when sentencing children and young people.

Sentencing Children and Young People

The new guidelines for sentencing children and young people provide up to date guidance on the general principles to be applied during sentencing, along with new offence-specific guidelines on robbery and sexual offences.

The guidelines do not make significant changes in the length of sentences being given to young people. They do, however, encourage the courts to focus more on the age, background and circumstances of each child or young person, while meeting the legal requirement to consider their welfare. For example, it should be taken into account whether a child has any learning difficulties, traumatic life experiences, mental health issues, or has suffered from loss, neglect or abuse.

The overarching principles include:

  • When sentencing children or young people, the court must regard the principal concern of the youth justice system, which is to prevent offending by children and young people, and the welfare of the child or young person;
  • While the seriousness of the offence will be the starting point, sentencing should be individualistic and focused on the child or young person (as opposed to offence focused). The sentence should focus on rehabilitation where possible, and the court should also consider the effect the sentence is likely to have, as well as any underlying factors contributing to the offending behaviour.
  • It is important to avoid “criminalising” children and young people unnecessarily. The primary purpose of the youth justice system is to encourage children and young people to take responsibility for their own actions and promote re-integration into society rather than to punish. Restorative justice disposals may be of particular value for children.
  • It is important to bear in mind any factors that may diminish the culpability of a child or young person. Offending by a child or young person is often a phase which passes fairly rapidly, and so the sentence should not result in the alienation of the child or young person from society.

These guidelines also reflect changes in offending which have come about since the production of previous sentencing guidelines. The use of technology to film and share offences online must now be taken into account when sentencing.

Reduction in Sentence for a Guilty Plea

The reduction in sentence for a guilty plea guideline encourages offenders to plead guilty as early as possible, in order to spare victims and witnesses the anxiety of going to trial, and to save public time and money. The principle of a reduction in sentence for offenders who plead guilty is not new (provided for in Section 144 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003), and these new guidelines merely define the point at which an offender can expect the maximum reduction in sentence. The guideline outlines that the maximum reduction in sentence is one-third (at first court hearing) and the minimum reduction is one tenth (on the day of trial).

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