The Independent Commission into the Experience of Victims and Long-term Prisoners has called for a fundamental reassessment of the policy and practice of sentencing for the most serious of crimes.
The number of people given a prison sentence of more than 10 years has more than doubled in a decade. Yet this constant increase in sentence length, at ever greater cost to the taxpayer, has failed to achieve the results which legislators desired.
Drawing on evidence received from both victims and prisoners, and a range of criminal justice experts, the Commission concludes in its final report – launched today – that sentencing for serious offences has lost its way and is not working for victims, prisoners, or society as a whole.
The Commission’s main recommendation is for a national debate on sentencing backed by a Law Commission review of the sentencing framework for serious offences, a citizen’s assembly on sentencing policy, and strengthening the remit of the Sentencing Council in promoting public understanding of sentencing.
It also makes eight detailed recommendations to improve the administration of long sentences for victims and prisoners. These include:
- better information for victims of serious crime about the sentencing of offenders
- proper enforcement of the existing entitlements of victims
- an entitlement for victims to be informed of prisoners’ progress in their prison sentence
- improved access to restorative justice for both victims and prisoners
- an improvement in the content of long sentences – including effective provision of education, and training leading to rehabilitation
- greater external scrutiny of arrangements for monitoring how sentences progress
- improvements in the effectiveness of the parole system to ensure cases are considered promptly and unnecessary delays are avoided
- an end to the injustice faced by IPP prisoners who have been imprisoned with no idea when they will be released
The Commission is chaired by Bishop James Jones, former Bishop of Liverpool and of Prisons, and former Chair of the Hillsborough Independent Panel. Its expert panel members include the founder of the Forgiveness Project Marina Cantacuzino; public health expert Dr Bill Kirkup; criminal barrister Michelle Nelson QC; former chief executive of the prison and probation service Michael Spurr; and the writer on public ethics Paul Vallely.
The aim of the Commission is to provide the basis for a more measured and informed public and political debate about how the most serious crime is punished. That debate should include both the treatment of perpetrators and the attention given to victims and their families once sentence has been passed.
The number of people given a determinate sentence of more than 10 years more than doubled from 485 in 2009 to 1,188 in 2019.* The average tariff lengths of life sentences have also been getting longer. In 2000, the average tariff length of mandatory life sentences was 13 years. By 2020 it had risen to 20 years.
Drawing both on the evidence heard directly from victims and prisoners, and on other research presented to it, the Commission has discovered that:
- Victims and their families feel overlooked, disregarded, neglected, marginalised and further traumatised by the criminal justice system – a wrong for which constantly longer sentences offers neither redress nor resolution.
- Prisoners, even those who acknowledge the depth of their wrong-doing, feel that the present workings of the prison system fail to foster the reform and rehabilitation of offenders which are are part of the statutory purposes of sentences – and which are essential if the aim of a safer society is to be met in practice.
Commenting in the Foreword to the report, Bishop James Jones, Chair of the Commission, said:
“It is important that the length of a prison sentence reflects the seriousness of an offence. And punishment is an essential element of the sentencing. But just as important as the quantity of years is the quality of the time that is spent in prison. It is not just the length of the sentence but also the content of the sentence that fulfils the requirements of the law which insists that the point of prison is not just retribution but also the reduction of crime, deterrence, public protection, reparation and rehabilitation. Our work has shown that, set against this wider set of aims, sentencing has lost its way.”
*For purposes of assessing historical trends in the use of long sentences, it should be noted that 2020 witnessed a significant decline in the number of sentences of all types passed by the courts, with court closures and jury trials suspended as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. We have therefore used figures for 2019 as our comparator for the majority of the data in the report.
The Independent Commission Into the Experience of Victims and Long-term Prisoners was set up following an invitation to Bishop Jones from the Prison Reform Trust (PRT). Its work has been supported through a variety of charitable contributions, and by a secretariat led by Ken Sutton, who also performed this role for the Hillsborough Independent panel. Its conclusions are entirely its own. Further information about the Commission, including its terms of reference, is available here Independent Commission into the Experience of Victims and Long-Term Prisoners – Terms Of Reference.