Media reports last weekend claimed that not a single burglar gets the maximum jail sentence.
But statements like this give the wrong impression of the criminal justice system and do not properly explain how it works.
Have you ever wondered how punishments for criminals are decided? If so, read on:
By law only judges and magistrates, who are entirely independent of Government, can decide on the appropriate sentence. This is for good reason, as only they have the full facts of each case in front of them – the severity of the crime, its impact on the victim and the circumstances of the person found guilty, to name but a few.
For example, if the offender has a drug problem which is clearly contributing to their offending behaviour, it may well make sense to require them to get help and try to beat their addiction.
Similarly, if an offender is accused of a low level crime and has a job, it may not be in society’s best interests to send that person to prison. This could see the offender lose that job and research shows that having no job can lead to people committing crime. So, there is little point sending someone to jail and increasing their chances of reoffending when a community sentence may sufficiently punish them whilst allowing them to maintain their livelihood.
Of course consistency of sentencing across all courts in England and Wales is vital, and so judges and magistrates use guidelines issued by the Sentencing Council (and its predecessor bodies), and guidance from the Court of Appeal. The Sentencing Council is an independent body, comprising judges and other experts from across the criminal justice system.
What is the maximum penalty for and who should get it?
When Parliament sets a maximum penalty for an offence it considers the range of behaviour that will be covered by the offence. The maximum penalty is designed to cover the most serious behaviour imaginable, and therefore cannot be the default sentence for the average offender.
For example, for burgling a house, the maximum penalty is 10 years in prison. But the offence covers everything from someone taking the opportunity of an open door to steal a low value item, all the way through to an organised night-time raid when people are at home and might include traumatising victims, causing damage and stealing high value items.
It is not surprising that the majority of those convicted of burglary do not commit the most serious form of it, and so the majority of offenders do not receive the maximum penalty. However, it does not mean that they go unpunished or that the punishment does not fit the crime.
If you have found this interesting and want to know more about the many and difficult decisions our judges and magistrates have to make every day, give your verdict on real life crimes when we ask You to Be The Judge.