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The proposal to increase to 50% the maximum sentence discount for a guilty plea at the first opportunity produced numerous responses when it was canvassed in the Green Paper “Breaking the Cycle”. The majority of those who commented were not in favour, including the judiciary, whose opposition was especially influential in persuading me that we should not proceed.
Can the Secretary of State assure the House that when a defendant pleads guilty at the last minute because he has been presented with overwhelming evidence against him, judges will still have discretion not to give him the maximum statutory sentencing discount of 33%?
I am glad to say that the guidelines have always said that, and it was never my intention to propose any change. The guidance on sentence reductions for guilty pleas recommends that a last-minute plea should attract no more than a 10% discount. It also says that where the prosecution case is overwhelming, even an early plea should receive less than the maximum, and recommends 20%. That is obviously a sensible rule. There is some discount because we are still saving the victim and witnesses the ordeal of going into the witness box, but the current one third, let alone 50%, is obviously far too generous for someone caught red-handed.
If the Justice Secretary’s aim is to spare the victim, why does he not turn things round and insist on an additional sentence for offenders who waste court time in the face of overwhelming evidence and subject victims to further hurt by their behaviour in court?
It is simply a result of the culture of the last 50 years, at least, that this has always been described as a “discount” for a guilty plea. Most of the general public do not appreciate that a discount applies. If members of the public are asked whether a discount on the sentence should be given for someone who pleads guilty early, they say no. But if they are asked, “Should someone who puts the victim through the ordeal of the witness box get a longer sentence than someone who pleads guilty?” they answer yes. Because we could not find a resolution to the risk of some of the more serious offences attracting too short a period in custody, and judicial discretion could not be devised to cover that, we have now decided to stick with the long-standing process whereby a one-third discount is available for an early guilty plea.