Criminals could get more than a third off their prison sentences by pleading guilty under plans being considered by ministers to tackle the court backlog and prison crisis. Ministers are considering increasing the sentence “discount” which reduces the time convicted offenders spend in prison the earlier they plead guilty. All criminals would be eligible apart from murderers who are subject to mandatory life sentences with minimum terms set by judges.
The maximum discount currently available is a third, if offenders plead guilty at their first hearing, but under the proposals it could be increased to as much as 40 per cent. The discount tapers off on a sliding scale the longer they delay a plea, to a quarter off at a second hearing and a tenth off if left to the first day of their trial. Such a move could have a significant impact in incentivising criminals to accept their guilt, removing the need for lengthy trials and speeding up the reduction of the record 65,000-case backlog. It could combat suspects who play the system by holding off on a plea in the hope that trial delays encourage their victim to drop out. The move is likely to receive the backing of Sir Max Hill KC, Director of Public Prosecutions, who in a speech this week said: “We should consider whether we can go any further in discounting sentences in an early guilty plea.”
Alex Chalk, the Justice Secretary, is expected to unveil plans on Monday to tackle the overcrowding crisis by releasing more prisoners early and sparing criminals facing shorter prison sentences from going to jail. Ministers plan to extend the scheme where prisoners can be released early on home detention curfews. The scheme will be extended to allow prisoners serving sentences under four years to be freed on tags and under curfew up to nine months and possibly a year before their release date. Separately, hundreds of offenders assessed as “low risk” will be freed around two weeks before their automatic release date under licence, mirroring a similar arrangement in 2007 when the Labour government was forced to free some 36,000 prisoners when it ran out of jail space.
Ministers are also seeking to reduce the number of prisoners held on remand, currently a record 15,500 and accounting for nearly a fifth of the entire prison population. Judges could be advised to take account of the overcrowding when deciding whether to grant bail. They have already spared some offenders jail after a ruling that they could weigh overcrowding in their sentencing decisions...