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Review of sentence discounting in Scotland shows little public support

Out-Law News | 22 Jan 2021 | 10:09 am | 2 min. read

Better public information should be made available to increase support for discounted sentences, according to a review of sentencing and plea decision-making in Scotland.

The review, carried out by academics from the Centre for Law, Crime & Justice at the University of Strathclyde for the Scottish Sentencing Council, found that the general public was generally uninformed about sentencing practice and views were influenced by a general perception of sentencing as unduly lenient.

According to the report (56 page / 1.1MB PDF), published in December, the general public tended to think there was a “lack of equivalence” where offenders pleading guilty received a reduced sentence in relation to the severity of the crime and the effect on the victim. There was also a perception that the sentence discount principle is concerned with saving court time and costs, and prison costs, rather than sparing the victim from an ordeal; and a perception that an accused would use the sentence discount principle as an opportunity to “play the system”.

The review found there was a lack of high-quality, empirical data about the everyday reality of sentencing practices for different kinds of cases in Scotland, which was preventing better understanding of the issues. It said there was a need for higher quality information to be made available so as to inform understanding of court practice in this area, the factors that influence plea decisions and the specific effects of sentence discounting on plea decisions.

The review also looked at the level of guidance available to judges in Scotland. It noted that case law showed there was no sliding scale for sentence discounts and that individuals are not entitled to a discount, although the review said earlier pleas typically resulted in a greater reduction in sentences. A discount should not exceed a third of a sentence regardless of when the plea was made.

Scottish judges have discretion over the sentence discount they grant. While this offers judges greater flexibility to deal with sentencing on a case-by-case basis, it may also serve to deter early guilty pleas if the accused cannot predict the discount they will receive, according to the review.

In circumstances where the accused pleads guilty, a Scottish court is required to consider applying a reduction in sentence, taking into account the stage at which any guilty plea has been tendered and the circumstances in which it is tendered.

The Scottish Sentencing Council will consider the review’s findings with the aim of developing guidelines in this area. The Council said it would also consider how it may contribute to improving public knowledge around discounting and sentencing practice more generally.

Health and safety expert Natalie Walker of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said: “It would be helpful for these guidelines to provide more insight into how the courts will deal with sentencing discounts, not only for the general public but also to enable lawyers to advise their clients what the likely approach may be from the court to a  plea, where appropriate.”

Rachel Trease of Pinsent Masons contributed to this article