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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 November, 2004, 12:41 GMT
How are criminals' sentences decided?
By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

Craig Smith
Drink-driver Craig Smith had his sentence for killing a woman cut

No aspect of the criminal justice system provokes more controversy than sentencing.

It is arguable that the failure of the police to catch more criminals has a bigger impact on offending.

But when it comes to public confidence, the terms handed down by judges - and the way they are presented by the media - are a key factor.

Yet the setting of sentences is a complex process which few lay people understand.

Causing death by dangerous driving carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. If the maximum is not to be imposed, then a number of other factors come into play.

If drink is involved, the amount of alcohol in the blood is one. Previous convictions for drink-driving are another. And whether the defendant pleads guilty and at what stage he or she does so, is a third.


In the case of Craig Smith, whose case was reconsidered by the Appeal Court last week, these factors, plus the expression of remorse, led to a scaling down of his six-year sentence to five years.

Identifying those considerations which a judge is obliged by statute and precedent to take into account when sentencing is one thing.

But what about the intangible factors which also play a role? Public opinion and the pronouncements of politicians are one.

Greater consistency? Certainly. Less controversy? Probably not.
Jon Silverman
How else to account for the steady rise in the average term served by life sentence prisoners during the last 15 years?

And now, with the establishment of the Sentencing Guidelines Council - which issued its first guidance in September - other aspects of government policy will also be relevant.

One of the main factors will be the desire to cap the prison population at around 80,000 by greater use of alternatives to custody for non-violent offences.

To this end, the head of the National Offender Management Service, Martin Narey, has a place as an observer on the council.

At present, sentencing guidelines do not exist for all cases. For more serious offences, they are issued when the Court of Appeal believes it to be necessary and after advice from a body called the Sentencing Advisory Panel.

Where there are no guidelines, judges will look to similar cases which have come before the Appeal Court and note the pattern and level of sentencing.

Now, all courts will be obliged to heed the views of the Sentencing Guidelines Council and to give reasons for departing from them.

Greater consistency? Certainly. Less controversy? Probably not.

Killer driver's jail sentence cut
04 Nov 04 |  Cambridgeshire
Mother's shock at jail term cut
10 Feb 04 |  Southern Counties
Child sex sentence is reviewed
08 Sep 04 |  Bristol/Somerset

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