Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Supplementary information given by Beverly Hughes MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office, relating to her evidence of 4 December

  I am writing in response to an enquiring concerning suspended sentences raised by Humfrey Malins during the Home Affairs Committee Meeting on the 4 December 2001. I apologise for the delay in replying.

  It may be useful if I explain why the use of suspended sentences has decreased. Suspended sentences were introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 1967. They used to by very popular with sentencers. The aim of the suspended sentence was to deter the offender from committing a further offence during the period for which the sentence is suspended. A suspended sentence could not, and still cannot, be imposed by a court unless the imposition of an immediate prison sentence would have been available to the sentencing court and would have been appropriate in a particular case in the absence of power to suspend. Accordingly, a suspended sentence cannot be ordered unless all the statutory provision as to the imposition of a sentence of immediate imprisonment have been complied with.

  Present legislation on suspended sentences is contained in 118-121 Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. These provisions reflect amendments made to previous legislation by the Criminal Justice Act 1991. Section 118(4) of the 2000 Act, requires that courts should impose a suspended sentence only where the exercise of the power can be justified by the exceptional circumstances of the case. This amendment was made in order to resolve the incompatibility of a suspended sentence of imprisonment, rooted as it is in the theory of compliance through deterrence, with the just desserts principle that underpinned the 1991 Acts sentencing framework. This amendment resulted in a sharp decline in the use of the suspended sentence. There is no definition of exceptional circumstances. There have been appeals to the Court of Appeal on the question of what constitutes exceptional circumstances, but the Court has continued to deal with the matter on a case by case basis. The Court of Appeal has quashed many suspended sentences because it did not accept that immediate imprisonment would have been correct on the facts of the particular case and considered that the imposition of a suspended sentence was wrong.

  Another problem with the suspended sentence is that the CJA 1991 made the criteria for justifying custody for adults and detention in a Youth offending Institution the same. Suspended sentences, however, can only be passed in respect of imprisonment and the exclusion of detention in a young offenders institution in anomalous.

  In 1991 Act's sentencing framework has proved inadequate and, as you as aware, we currently taking forward the recommendations of the Halliday Report on the form of a new sentencing framework. Prison is right for dangerous and other serious offenders but we need a sentencing framework which will do more to support crime reduction and reparation, while meeting the needs of punishment, through the introduction of more flexible sentencing options. We need to be better able to exploit the developing opportunities to work with offenders to reduce re-offending and in the new approaches to restorative justice and reparation.

  One of these flexible sentencing options is "custody minus". The proposals we are currently considering envisages a Court imposing a custodial sentence but suspending it on condition that the offender completed a programme of activity in the community, the ingredients of which would be the same as that for the generic community sentence. The period of suspension would be up to 2 years, and would replace the existing provisions for suspended sentences, which in effect would become subsumed within custody minus with the "exceptional circumstances" criteria removed. Breach of the conditions of suspension would lead to custody. Before the offender could be sent to custody, however, there would need to be some judicial intervention to determine whether the conditions for custody had been met.

  The public consultation exercise on the Halliday Report was concluded at the end of October 2001 and a summary of the responses was published on 4 February 2002. We are currently working towards agreement on a set of proposals with a view to inclusion in a White Paper in spring.

  I hope this is helpful.

February 2002

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