Tag Archives: MoJ

Burglars to get longer sentences when children give evidence – More nonsense from the MoJ

splogger-content-theft

Earlier this week, The Evening Standard ran a story that claimed ‘Burglars will face tougher jail sentences if children traumatised by the raids bravely tell courts of their ordeal.’

This was, it seems, a response to a statement made by Justice Minister Damian Green MP who the Standard reported, ‘stressed that judges should take into account personal victim statements made by youngsters, as well as adults, whose homes are burgled.’

What is he talking about?

That is the question I found myself asking, right before I emailed Dan to say ‘what a load of fucking nonsense’.

Just a few problems…

The article is somewhat confusing, seemingly failing to draw a distinction between children giving evidence at a burglary trial, and children making a Victim Impact Statement, and choosing to read that aloud at a sentencing hearing.

What’s the difference? Well at a trial, our fictional child may give evidence about the burglary (what he or she saw etc.), so that the jury or magistrates can determine whether or not our ‘burglar’ did it. At a sentencing hearing, our fictional child may choose to read his or her Victim Impact Statement aloud to the court (how the offence has affected them, are they scared to be in the house etc.).

So there is the first problem. The second problem is that the article (and Mr Green if the article is faithful to the points he was making) is making out as though this is a reform, and that the MoJ are making provisions for tougher sentences when children are affected by a burglary. The problem? That already happens.

The Burglary sentencing guidelines lists the following as aggravating factors:

[Aggravated burglary] Child at home (or returns home) when offence committed

[Domestic burglary] Occupier at home (or returns home) while offender present

Clearly, ‘occupier’ would encompass a child, and so when a child is at home during a burglary, that will be considered to be an aggravating factor and reflected in the final sentence.

The third problem is the suggestion that the Victims’ Code is somehow going to result in longer sentences for burglars. Firstly, there was already an inherent power to allow a victim to read a Victim Impact Statement aloud. The Code has simply formalised that power and is likely to have made it more common (but not by a great deal I don’t expect). Secondly, the idea that by reading your statement aloud, the defendant is going to get a longer sentence is simply wrong – it may put pressure on a person to read their statement when they do not wish to do so, and may encourage exaggerated or untrue statements. To suggest such a thing is irresponsible. Thirdly, it is common sense that whether read aloud or simply written and handed to the judge, the sentence will reflect the effect on the victim, as explained in the Victim Impact Statement – not by how well it is articulated orally in court.

So there we are. More nonsense from the Ministry of Justice, and a bit of dodgy press reporting to boot.

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MoJ announces review of use of cautions

The Home Office states that ‘out-of-court disposals, such as cautions, conditional cautions and penalty notices for disorder (PNDs), are intended for dealing with low-level, often first-time offending, where prosecution would not be in the public interest.’[1] Whilst in principle, that description may sound an appropriate, in practice, the implementation has been very different.

Stats

In 2009, 450,000 cases were dealt with through penalty notices and cautions. In 2011, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, expressed his concern at the prevalence of summary justice; punishments handed out by police officers instead of the courts have risen sharply. In 2008 there were 567,000 out-of-court disposals, representing an increase of 135% on 2003. In April 2011, the Council of Circuit Judges warned that “handing out fines for ‘truly criminal behaviour’ gave the impression it is not significant, [resulting in] offenders [escaping] punishment while the public is left in the dark”.

Problems

The problems can be broadly split into three; inappropriate use where a prosecution is more suitable, use where an offence may not have been committed, and use to enhance statistics.

The former is the most commonly cited problem:

In 2008, there were 36 cautions given for rape. Latest figures show this has fallen to 18 in 2011. Whilst the public can be reassured that a caution for a sexual offence does trigger the notification requirements (commonly called the sex offender’s register), many will feel that such a disposal for serious offences are wholly inappropriate.

In the absence of proper legal advice some may accept a caution where no offence has been committed. This may be because of the existence of a defence which is unknown to the ‘offender’.

The third issue is that the system is open to abuse. Where police forces see the opportunity to bump up their statistics, cautions are administered inappropriately. For an offence of robbery, it would be possible to offer two cautions, one for theft and one for assault. This would create the impression that two offences had been brought to justice as opposed to one. This is clearly wrong.

Review

The MoJ has announced a review into the use of cautions.

News reports can be found here and here.

In a statement, the MoJ said it would examine:

  • Existing guidance and practice relating to cautions
  • Whether there are offences where use of cautions would be “inappropriate” – and if so, what should be used instead
  • Reasons why multiple cautions are given to some criminals
  • The difference in their use by different police forces – and whether increased scrutiny is needed to ensure they are used consistently
  • The impact on individuals of accepting a caution, including how it might affect future employment

The MoJ said it was working with the Home Office and Attorney General’s Office, and the review would closely involve the police, Crown Prosecution Service, victims’ organisations, the judiciary and the legal community.

The review will report back to ministers by the end of May.