An innocent objection to reduced sentences

September 23, 2004

Proposals to reduce sentences for guilty pleas would make life harder for the thousands of people who end up wrongfully convicted, writes Dr Michael Naughton….This week, a debate has raged about the draft plans of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, chaired by the lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, to reduce the prison sentences of murderers if they show ‘absolute candour’ and enter early guilty pleas.Political advantage has been sought by the shadow home secretary, David Davies, who has argued that such moves would make a mockery of David Blunkett’s claim to be tough on serious crime.Against this, it has been argued that the planned reductions in sentences are to be welcomed, even celebrated, as they will introduce urgently needed consistency to the huge variations in sentencing by different courts for the same offence.But, what has not been thought about is how the planned reforms might affect the innocent who have already had a whole raft of safeguards against wrongful convictions wiped out by the 2003 Criminal Justice Act. These included the abolition of double jeopardy, the restriction of jury trails for certain offences, the revelation of previous criminal records and the introduction of hearsay evidence in criminal trials. All of which have been shown in research in the United States to lead to miscarriages of justice.If the new sentencing guidelines are implemented it will only increase the dilemmas that confront the innocent by institutionalising the practice of ‘plea bargaining’, which is also a known cause of wrongful convictions. As all of the available research in the Unites States and England and Wales has shown, it serves to put pressure on the innocent to admit to crimes that they did not commit.

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