The Sentencing Con Trick

If a man receives an eight year sentence for robbery, how much time does he actually serve behind bars?

It’s not eight years, for a start. It might not even be four years, although most criminals are told they will serve half their sentences before being released on licence. Some are released even earlier on electronic tags.

So what is the point of providing a number at all? Isn’t it just playing mind games with the public?

Most people know that prisoners only serve half their sentences, but just as a CD sounds more attractive to buy at £9.99 than £10, so an eight year sentence for a violent robber sounds better than four years.

This trick, while not an outright deception, is similar to the use of the ‘life sentence’. We all know that life does not mean life, but to many it sounds more like an appropriate punishment for murder.

At least with life sentences and the relatively new ‘imprisonment for public protection’ (IPP), we are told the minimum term that must be served behind bars.

This is why the press now tends to say a killer has been jailed for 30 years rather than ‘jailed for life.’ People aren’t stupid, so why should we use ambiguous phrases?

The Government say they want to increase public understanding and confidence in the system. It’s one of the reasons why the Sentencing Council has begun a public consultation on guidelines for assault cases. The idea is to ensure violent criminals are dealt with consistently and on the same basis by courts across the country.

Judges will now have to skip through eight steps, bearing in mind a large number of variables along the way, before they come up with the magic number.

Obviously it helps to set this all out, just so we know that people aren’t being sentenced according to the roll of a dice or what side of bed the judge rolled out of, but is that really why people lack confidence in the system?

Do we really need a step by step guide that turns judges into little more than robots in wigs?

Robot in wig
A Robot in a Wig

What needs immediate reform is not the way the number is arrived at, but the number itself.

Let that number be the amount of time that a prisoner will actually spend in jail.

We should not have to immediately resort to arithmetic, or whip out our calculators, to arrive at the truth.*

*For those who are interested, for normal ‘determinate’ sentences you take the number provided and divide it by two before subtracting the days already spent in jail awaiting trial. For ‘indeterminate’ sentences like life sentences and IPP, the judge announces the minimum term that must be served before being released on licence. Life sentences mean the offender must spend their entire life on licence, while IPP sentences allow for the licence period to finish after ten years.

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