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We need to talk about serious crime

The Independent Commission into the Experience of Victims and Long-term Prisoners has today called for a fundamental reassessment of the policy and practice of sentencing for the most serious of crimes.

The Commission is chaired by Bishop James Jones, former Bishop of Liverpool and of Prisons, and former Chair of the Hillsborough Independent Panel. Its expert panel members include the founder of the Forgiveness Project Marina Cantacuzino; public health expert Dr Bill Kirkup; criminal barrister Michelle Nelson QC; former chief executive of the prison and probation service Michael Spurr; and the writer on public ethics Paul Vallely.

The Commission is unusual in that it draws on evidence from both victims and prisoners, as well as a range of criminal justice experts.

The Commission’s overall objective is to provide the basis for a more measured and informed public and political debate about how the most serious crime is punished. It says that this debate should include both the treatment of perpetrators and the attention given to victims and their families once sentence has been passed.

The report

The Commission highlights the fact that the number of people given a determinate sentence of more than 10 years more than doubled from 485 in 2009 to 1,188 in 2019. The average tariff lengths of life sentences have also been getting longer. In 2000, the average tariff length of mandatory life sentences was 13 years. By 2020 it had risen to 20 years.

It argues that this constant (and continuing) increase in sentence length not only represents ever-growing cost to the taxpayer, but has failed to achieve the reduction in crime which legislators desired. The report argues that sentencing for serious offences has lost its way and is not working for victims, prisoners, or society as a whole.

Drawing both on the evidence heard directly from victims and prisoners, and on other research presented to it, the Commission has discovered that the current approach is unsatisfactory for both those in prison and their victims.

Prisoners, even those who acknowledge the depth of their wrong-doing, feel that the present workings of the prison system fail to foster the reform and rehabilitation of offenders which are part of the statutory purposes of sentences – and which are essential if the aim of a safer society is to be met in practice.

Victims and their families feel overlooked, disregarded, neglected, marginalised and further traumatised by the criminal justice system – a wrong for which constantly longer sentences offers neither redress nor resolution.

Recommendations

The Commission’s main recommendation is for a national debate on sentencing backed by a Law Commission review of the sentencing framework for serious offences, a citizen’s assembly on sentencing policy, and strengthening the remit of the Sentencing Council in promoting public understanding of sentencing.

 It also makes eight detailed recommendations to improve the administration of long sentences for victims and prisoners. These include:

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