Sentencing offenders

Magistrates sentence offenders according to mandatory sentencing guidelines

Magistrates always consider any decision very carefully. They follow a process using sentencing guidelines from the Sentencing Council and taking note of any relevant case law that has been drawn to their attention by their legal adviser in court.

Record

Following a guilty plea or conviction in a trial, the magistrates would be told of any previous convictions and whether the offence had been committed while the defendant was on bail or on licence (released from prison before the end of their sentence). This makes the matter more serious. This helps magistrates to see if there is a pattern of offending and what penalties have been issued previously eg they can see if someone with an obvious drug addiction has been given any opportunity to address their habit. If it was a motoring case then details of the defendant’s driving record would be given to the court. In addition the defence representative or if unrepresented, the defendant  would be given the chance to speak on behalf of the defendant.

Stage One

Magistrates use sentencing guidelines to help them follow a process to arrive at a fair sentence. They assess the seriousness of the offence by looking at the culpability in committing the offence and harm caused  or was intended to cause or might have been caused.

The guidelines give examples of the nature of activity and provide a starting point based on a first time offender pleading not guilty.

Stage Two

Once the starting point is identified than the magistrates can add or reduce this to reflect any aggravating or mitigating factors that impact on culpability and/or harm eg if an offence was committed while the defendant was on bail would increase seriousness.

From this preliminary view of the appropriate sentence the magistrates would then look at the offender to see if there is any mitigation eg cooperation with the police, full admissions, remorse.

The magistrates would consider a reduction for a guilty plea: this is on a sliding scale so someone admitting their guilt straightaway would expect about a third reduction whereas someone admitting guilt on the day of a trial could expect one tenth.

Magistrates also at this stage consider any ancillary orders eg compensation, driving ban.

Finally magistrates would state reasons for the sentence passed, stating any factors that have made matters more or less serious.

Reports

If the likely sentence is to be a community penalty or a prison sentence then the bench would normally ask the probation service to prepare a  report which gives details of risk of re-offending, any problems that the offenders has, attitudes about the offence etc.

The report may include a medical or pyschiatric report or an additional report if the magistrates were thinking of  a community penalty with a requirement to address an addiction or abusive behaviour.

Sometimes the report can be prepared on the same day and information given orally but a more detailed report may take 3 weeks. Whenever possible the one or more of the bench will return to sentence as they are familiar with the case.

Appeals

Most of the time defendants accept the outcome and sentence but if they are unhappy they do have the right to appeal to the Crown Court provided they do so within a time limit. In reality very few cases are appealed, less than 3% and of those less than half are allowed.