Defendants’ Understanding of Sentencing: November 2021

By Jessica Goldring
• Underpinning the sentencing framework is an assumption that defendants understand sentencing practice and will respond accordingly. For example, policymakers often presume that potential offenders will be deterred from committing offences by the prospect of longer sentences. However, very little is known about the extent to which those being sentenced understand the process and the likely sentencing outcome.
• Decisions made by defendants early in the process, such as whether to plead guilty and, if so, to what charges have a material impact on the sentence imposed so it is important that defendants appreciate the significance of these decisions and comprehend how they will influence theirsentence.
• The limited empirical research in this area suggests that defendants may have limited understanding of the sentencing process and will therefore be reliant on professional advice about what factors are likely to influence the sentence and what their sentence means in practice. An understanding of licence conditions, or any conditions attached to a community order or a suspended sentence order, may be a pre-requisite for compliance with the sentence.
• Much more needs to be known about the level of defendants’ understanding of sentencing and this paper makes suggestions for future research in this area. This research should explore areas such as: the adequacy of legal advice before, during and after a sentencing hearing; the extent to which defendants fully comprehend the requirements of their sentence; whether defendants understand the reasons for the sentence imposed and consider it to be a fair and legitimate outcome; and whether defendants are satisfied that they have had the opportunity to put all factors they consider relevant to sentencing before the court.
• Further research could also examine how defendants’ understanding of sentencing interacts with their desire and ability to comply with their sentence. A failure to fully explain the effect of the sentence and the justifications for it may have an impact on the effectiveness of the sentence and the extent to which defendants are encouraged by the sentencing process to desist from further offending.
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