Judges to consider softer sentences for ‘deprived’ criminals who misuse alcohol and drugs | UK | News


British Judges have been told to consider handing out more lenient sentences for convicted offenders from “deprived” or “difficult” backgrounds.

The Sentencing Council, the official body charged with setting guidelines for judges and magistrates, has identified “mitigating” factors for the first time. These factors relate to various disadvantages that courts should take into account before passing sentences.

The new guidelines on “difficult and/or deprived background or personal circumstance” include poverty, low educational attainment, discrimination and insecure accommodation.

The council’s guidelines came into effect on Monday, despite warnings from Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Alex Chalk, who argued the guidance was “patronising” and “inaccurate”. He added that it risked making poor schooling and poverty excuses for criminals to break the law.

Concerns were also raised during the consultation phase that the new sentencing guidelines could mean better-off, middle class offenders from secure households are “unfairly disadvantaged” by being slapped with harsher penalties for the same offence.

It was also noted that many people from deprived backgrounds do not become offenders.

The Blue Collar Conservatives, a group founded by the minister for common sense Esther McVey, told the council: “We believe this is extremely patronising, not least to law-abiding working class communities.

“Often it is actually those who come from the poorest communities who will be the victims of the crimes in these cases. Low educational attainment and poverty are not excuses to commit crimes.”

The Sentencing Council itself conceded that the judges and magistrates privately consulted over the guidelines had been “predominantly negative or neutral”. Many said they already took such factors into account anyway.

However, the body opted to proceed with the plans, claiming that unambiguously detailing mitigating factors would mean that they were applied in a “consistent and appropriate” way and improve “transparency and fairness”.

Judges and magistrates have therefore been told to consider 12 factors of “disadvantage” in ascertaining an offender’s responsibility for a crime. They have also been told to determine how those factors bear on criminals’ behaviour and the impact any sentence might have on them.

Negative experiences of authority, experiences of offending by family members early in life, and challenges around the misuse of drugs and alcohol are all factors judges have been told to consider.

However, being voluntarily drunk at the time of an offence is an “aggravating factor” in sentencing.

Mr Chalk’s response to the consultation, seen by the Telegraph said: “The Government is clear that many of the examples of difficulty or deprivation that have been set out in the consultation, such as low educational attainment and poverty, ought not to be relied upon as excuses to commit crimes.

“Presupposing that relatively low income for example (or indeed other deprivation) indicates a propensity to commit crime risks appearing patronising at best, or inaccurate at worst.

“Moreover, many in society, including no doubt judges and MPs, will have encountered young people from modest educational or financial backgrounds who have shown scrupulous integrity and a commitment to leading a law-abiding life.”

A spokesman said the Sentencing Council the guidance was worded to balance between drawing courts’ attention to “potentially relevant considerations” without being over-prescriptive.


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