There is legitimate debate about when prison is the right sentence for those convicted of less serious crimes. But for the most serious of crimes there is broad support for the view that lengthy prison sentences should be given to those responsible for the offences which society regards as most damaging and abhorrent.
The sentence given in these circumstances, how it is communicated to the families affected and more widely, how the sentence is served and how and when the sentence is concluded, are all essential to delivering the five statutory purposes of sentencing, which are:
the punishment of offenders
the reduction of crime (including its reduction by deterrence)
the reform and rehabilitation of offenders
the protection of the public
the making of reparation by offenders to persons affected by their offences
There is public and political commentary that suggest that the current sentencing framework and practice fails to secure public confidence and fails to meet the expectations of victims and their families. Victims say they feel left in the dark over what the sentence actually implies for the length of time a person will serve in custody rather than in the community, how time in prison is spent and how prisoners are considered for release and then released.
At the same time there is also concern that sentences for the most serious of crimes have become disproportionate, exceeding what is required to meet their statutory purposes. Principally as a result of legislation, sentences have lengthened very considerably since the turn of the century. More than three times as many people were sentenced to 10 years or more in the 12 months to June 2018 as in the same period a decade ago. Judges are required to set much longer periods for the minimum time to be served in prison for offences of murder. On average this minimum term imposed rose to 21.3 years in 2016, up from 13 years in 2001. Sentences which remove hope are likely also to remove all incentive to reform, undermining the rehabilitative objective enshrined in law. There are questions to be addressed as to the link between sentencing, reoffending and a safer society.
The remit of the Independent Commission will be to hear from victims and their families and from prisoners and their families; and to write a Report reflecting their experiences and perspectives and to identify points of learning. The Independent Commission will also consider the wider public interest in sentencing, and any written submissions which are received.
The Independent Commission will therefore examine and assess, for England and Wales:
the pattern of sentences being given for the most serious of crimes and of the time being spent in prison;
how those sentences are being served, including the arrangements for contact between the prisoner, the prison authorities and the victim and their families;
communications with the victims and their families both at the time of the sentencing and through the period of the sentence;
the perspective of both victims and their families and prisoners and their families including of being marginalised by the way sentences are administered.
any changes which might help better achieve a restorative purpose for victims and their families as well as delivering all the purposes of sentencing set out by Parliament in these most serious of circumstances.
The Independent Commission will gather information and evidence as it sees fit in order to examine and assess the issues involved. Its Terms of Reference will be completed by the publication of a Report in mid-2021 designed to inform public and Parliamentary debate and government policy.
The Independent Commission will be independently funded and supported by a secretariat which includes the Prison Reform Trust. It will be required to reach its own assessment, conclusions and recommendations and will be solely responsible for delivering its Terms of Reference.