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Early guilty pleas may earn discounts on jail terms



In a move that will bring hoirror to all those who maintain their innocence and have been wrongly accused the Sentencing Commission chaired by Lord Woolfe have recommended that early guilty please might attract a discount. A report in todays Guardian states:”Defendants facing murder charges will be encouraged to plead guilty early to cut a third off their prison term, under draft guidelines unveiled yesterday by the lord chief justice, Lord Woolf.In exceptional circumstances, judges should consider a reduction of even more than a third, says the guidance, issued by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which Lord Woolf chairs. Examples include cases such as a domestic murder where the killer immediately feels remorse and turns himself over to the police, or where the offender confesses to an unsolved crime in the absence of any evidence linking him to it. A range of discounts will apply to all offences, from a third to a 10th, depending on how early a defendant pleads guilty. The guidelines point out that a guilty plea removes the need for a trial, spares victims and witnesses the stress of reliving the incident, and saves money. They formalise a system already operating in the courts whereby early guilty pleas are rewarded with reductions in sentence. But they should have their biggest effects in murder cases because very few defendants charged with murder currently plead guilty. Under the guidelines, the trial judge fixing the “tariff”, or minimum term a murderer must serve before applying for parole, will be able to cut the term in return for a guilty plea. It would still be up to the pa role board to decide whether it was safe for the prisoner to be released. It was assumed that murderers would spend longer in prison after the home secretary, David Blunkett, introduced a new 15-year minimum tariff for murders committed after December 18 2003. This replaced earlier guidance by Lord Woolf that the starting point for a “normal” murder should be 12 years. The average time served by a convicted murderer was then 11 years. Mr Blunkett signalled a battle over the guidelines, which he said still had to be approved by the home affairs select committee. He added: “Parliament was very clear when it passed the act that those convicted of murder should receive minimum sentences ranging from 15 years to whole life, depending on their circumstances. This deliberately toughened up earlier legislation, passed by previous governments. “The only exceptions to the minimum tariffs in the act should be very specific aggravating or mitigating circumstances – mercy killing or where self defence is a factor.” Lord Woolf clashed with the home secretary over proposals that parliament should fix a minimum term, and the lord chief justice made a speech in the Lords about the threat to judges’ independence. But Lord Woolf said yesterday that after studying the legislation it was clear that the 15-year minimum was just a “guideline” which still left considerable flexibility to judges. Last July he issued a practice direction to judges which stated: “It should not be assumed that parliament, in enacting the Criminal Justice Act 2003, intended to raise to 15 years all mandatory life sentence minimum terms that would previously have had a lower starting point.” Yesterday he said judges still had discretion, despite the 15-year minimum, to fix much lower tariffs – possibly as low as two years in mercy-killing cases – as they had done in the past. He expected that the effect of the minimum tariff combined with the guidance on discounts for guilty pleas would probably be “neutral”, meaning no change to the average term served by murderers. Under the guidelines, sentences (and tariffs in murder cases) would be cut by a third if the offender pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity, a quarter if the plea came after the trial was set down, and a 10th for a plea after the trial had started. Guidelines published yesterday also advise judges on new sentences coming into force next year. Community regimes will be harsher and offenders released from jail part of the way through their sentence will have to comply with rigorous requirements, which will be monitored, for the rest of the sentence….