The King’s Speech, or the State Opening of Parliament, provides the government with an opportunity to set out its legislative agenda for the months ahead. In total, 21 bills, or pieces of legislation, were put forward this year, with criminal justice taking a leading role.
Among the legislation put forward, was the Sentencing Bill. This aims to take a fresh look at how criminals are sentenced once convicted - making sure that prison is used to lock up dangerous criminals for longer yet using alternatives to prison, for what the government describes as “redeemable offenders” with sentences of less than 12 months.
It is widely publicised that the Prison Population in 2023 was almost at maximum capacity. One of the most senior Judges in the UK recently provided guidance to Judges to adjourn sentence hearings at the Crown Court where a prison sentence was inevitable. One measure to tackle the overcrowding of prisons was announced by the Justice Secretary in October and was introduced during the Kings Speech.
Essentially, under the Sentencing Bill, there would be a presumption in favour of a suspended sentence where the sentence is 12 months or less, so the offender can serve their sentence in the community. It should be noted that is not an automatic right and a discretion to impose an immediate prison sentence is still available if offenders pose a significant risk to the public or have shown disregard for court orders in the past.
There have already been some raised eyebrows about the prospect of offenders not serving time in prison for their actions. The old adage of ‘commit the crime, serve the time’ still holds a lot of weight with many people. The government has tried to alleviate any public concern by stressing that if the suspended sentence was to be breached or that person was to re-offend, then they should expect to serve their prison sentence. The government has come under a lot of pressure to address overcrowding in the prison system so we will wait and see if these changes do anything to alleviate that.