Several members of the Sentencing Academy attended an event at Portcullis House on 8 November to launch the House of Commons Justice Committee’s Report Public Opinion and Understanding of Sentencing. Executive Director, Professor Julian V. Roberts, was invited to respond to the Report’s findings and proposals. The Committee’s research involved polling 2,057 adults in England and Wales about their knowledge and views on sentencing process and purpose, and a deliberative engagement exercise with 25 adults which explored two questions: what do you think the aims of sentencing should be; and what should the Government’s priorities be when determining sentencing policy. The Sentencing Academy’s previous work on public perceptions of sentencing was cited in the Report and we were pleased to assist with the delivery of the public dialogue exercise.
Some of key findings in the Report are consistent with existing knowledge about public understanding of sentencing. Limited understanding was displayed by the participants:
‘Beyond the role of the courts in imposing a sentence, the public does not have a good understanding of the role played by different state institutions in sentencing. That is unsurprising because the role played by government, Parliament, the Sentencing Council and the judiciary in sentencing involves a delicate balance of responsibilities, which are not easy to explain…The problem with this situation is that it creates an accountability gap, as it is unclear to the public which elements of sentencing the Government is responsible for.’ (para. 21)
This was matched by a lack of knowledge about trends in sentence-severity. It is documented that prison sentences have become longer for the most serious offences but this is not commonly appreciated. Low understanding matters as it affects the ‘public debate on sentencing, which in turn can have an influence on sentencing policy’ (para. 36). The Justice Select Committee put forward a number of recommendations for improving public knowledge:
‘There needs to be a step-change in the Ministry of Justice, the Attorney-General’s Office and the Sentencing Council’s efforts on public legal education. HMCTS should develop a programme which enables secondary school pupils to be able to visit magistrates’ courts and Crown Courts to find out about the criminal justice system and sentencing.’ (para. 37)
In addition, incorporating sentencing policy and practice into the National Curriculum for Citizenship, the creation of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on sentencing, and a standalone joint website created by the Ministry of Justice and the Sentencing Council dedicated to providing information to the public on sentencing trends should be considered. Significant sentencing trends should also be analysed by the Sentencing Council.
When it comes to the purposes of sentencing, the public dialogue exercise found that 56% of respondents ranked ‘ensuring the victim had secured justice’ as one of the top three factors that should influence sentence. Justice for victims is not a current sentencing aim. The Report recommends that the Government revisit the statutory sentencing aims found in section 57 of the Sentencing Act 2020 to determine whether achieving justice for victims should be included.
The Justice Committee stressed the value of undertaking research with the public and argued that the public should be actively engaged in sentencing policy. However, recognising the methodological challenges, it was essential that views should be captured in a structured and rigorous manner. The methodology employed in the Report – combining polling with deliberative methods – was recommended. Their final recommendation was the establishment of an independent advisory panel to evaluate proposed policy changes and provide ministers with advice.
Sir Bob Neill MP, Chair of the House of Commons Justice Committee, opened the event by highlighting the need for Parliament to understand popular attitudes to sentencing. Often policy decisions were taken without this knowledge, and it was assumed that the public were instinctively punitive. The reality was more complex. There was then an interesting reflection from a member Calum Green, Director of Advocacy and Communications, at Involve, the public participation charity who had facilitated the public dialogue sessions about methodology and the growing use of dialogue in policy-making internationally. Joshua Rosenberg, the legal affairs journalist, chaired the subsequent audience discussion. Topics raised included how popular punitiveness should be challenged, ethnic disparity in sentencing outcomes, and how victims’ perceptions of justice should be accommodated in sentencing policy.
Commenting on the Report, Professor Julian V. Roberts concluded that:
‘Perhaps the most important recommendation in the report is the proposal to create a panel which would consider proposed changes to sentencing policy and provide advice to government ministers and private members proposing reforms. Such an independent panel would be invaluable and would lead to much more rational and evidence-based policy proposals. It should either report to or have close links to the Justice Select Committee.’
After the event, Gavin Dingwall, Head of Policy and Communications at the Sentencing Academy, commented:
‘This was a rewarding session which considered many findings from the Justice Select Committee’s Report. Attendees raised a range of issues surrounding the research findings, the policy implications, and the Committee’s far-reaching proposals. The value of high-quality research to meaningful policy-making was evident throughout. The Sentencing Academy will monitor the impact of the Report with interest.’