When a court has to sentence for multiple offences, the question arises as to whether the sentences should be made concurrent or consecutive to one another.
A concurrent sentence is one which is served at the same time as another, for example, B receives 2 years for burglary and 4 years for arson, concurrent. The total sentence is 4 years, because they begin at the same time.
A consecutive sentence is one which is served after another, for example, B receives 2 years for burglary and 4 years for arson, consecutive. The total sentence is 6 years, as the two sentences are added together, and one is served at the conclusion of the other.
Concurrent or consecutive – how do you decide?
The principles of totality are explained in the Totality Guideline produced by the Sentencing Council. There is no hard and fast rule as to whether sentences should be concurrent (i.e. served at the same time) or consecutive (i.e. served one after the other), and the courts are concerned primarily with the overall total – the pertinent question is whether the overall sentence is proportionate to the offending.
Concurrent sentences are generally appropriate where the offences arise out of the same incident, say for example, where a burglar breaks into a house and steals a wallet (burglary) and on his way out steals a gnome from the garden (theft). Concurrent sentences are also generally appropriate where there is a series of offences of a similar kind, especially against the same victim.
Consecutive sentences are generally appropriate where a) the offences arise out of separate and unrelated incidents and b) the offences are linked but concurrent sentences will not adequately reflect the overall criminality.
Intertwined with the issue of concurrent and consecutive sentences is that of totality. Where a court imposes consecutive sentences, say, 2 years, 4 years and 18 months (total 7½ years), the court must ask itself whether the total sentence is proportionate to the offending. For example, twenty burglaries each worth 2 years could not reasonably result in a 40-year sentence. The sentence has to reflect what the defendant has done, and how that relates to other types of offending – would it be fair to lock someone up for longer than a murder, just because they had committed five offences each worth 5 years?
Frequently, courts will reduce either the overall term, having stated the individual sentence on each individual count.
For example, 2 years + 4 years + 18 months = 7 years. Reduce 7 years by 2 years to reflect that the 7 years is too much for the overall offending.
Alternatively, the court may reduce the period of imprisonment on each count to achieve the desired result. For example, if the proper sentence on each count is 2 years + 4 years + 18 months = 7 years, but the appropriate sentence, having regard to totality is 5 years, the court may state what the sentence would be, but for totality, and then reduce 2 years to 18 months, 4 years to 4 years and 18 months to 12 months, to achieve the desired result.
Sexual offences cases
Very topical at the moment is the issue of the proper sentence to impose on defendants in sexual offences cases.
In line with the principles listed above, defendants are likely to receive consecutive sentences for offences against individual victims. Max Clifford is an example (although there are some problems with the sentence imposed upon him).
There is sure to be further judgments by the Court of Appeal in relation to this issue, so watch this space.