Friday, 20 May 2011

Ken Clarke and Plea Bargaining

Two days ago Ken Clarke, secretary of state for justice, was giving an interview on the Victoria Derbyshire program on 5live. He was originally there to discuss plans to reduce sentences for people who plead guilty early in their trial. Unfortunately for him, he managed to get bogged down in a discussion about different categories of rape and ended up offending an awful lot of people. I'm going to look at his policy rather than his interview but I would just say, if you haven't heard it then listen to it ( ) before you start jumping to conclusions. From what I heard listening to the interview, Ken was trying to say that there are a broad range of circumstances simply termed "rape", from consensual sex between 15 year-olds up to violent assault and rape and so there are some which deserve harsher punishment than others. But enough of that.

At present, if you go to court for any crime and plead guilty immediately then the judge can give you up to a third off of your sentence. So, somebody who might have got 6 years might only get 4 if they pleaded guilty at the first opportunity. The proposal is to increase this concession from a third to a half.

There are a number of reasons why it is a good idea. The justice department has to make savings of close to £210 million this year and it is estimated that cutting down on the amount of time spent in court trying to prove someone is guilty, as well as lowering the time people spend in jail, would provide up to £150 million of those savings.

Moreover, it would encourage criminals to plead guilty in borderline cases where, if they took it through to the end, they might end up not being convicted. To take the example of rape, only about 6% of all reported rapes end in conviction. Whilst this proposal might mean a convicted rapist gets less time behind bars, it might mean there are more of them who are caught. Would you rather have 5 rapists convicted, who each spend 4 years behind bars, or 8 rapists convicted, who each spend 3 years behind bars?

So, the policy's not a bad one. However, this blog is also about trying to point out better ways for government to achieve its aims. I, personally, don't particularly like the idea of criminals being able to spend less time behind bars. Regardless of whether this policy would lead to greater convictions, that fact isn't going to go down well with the general public. Surely, a better way to do it would be to increase sentences for those who do not plead guilty, rather than lowering them for those that do. Ken wants to increase the concession from 33% to 50%. The exact same effect could be achieved by increasing sentences for those who do not plead guilty by 50%. So whereas you might get 5 years for pleading guilty, you would get 7 1/2 if you tried to protest your innocence. Or, if you don't want to have the extra cost of having people spend an awful lot more time in prison, you could increase the concession to 50%, but also increase sentences by a third. That means that, where a criminal might have got 2 years off of a 6 year sentence before, they would now get 4 years off of an 8 year sentence, so they would still spend 4 years in prison either way, but there is now a greater incentive to plead guilty.

This would still give you savings from less court time and lawyers fees spent on trying to convict people, as well as giving criminals longer sentences and hopefully leading to a higher conviction rate. I can hardly see that proposal being unpopular with the general public and yet it achieves most of the things the original proposal does. Ken Clarke might be very unpopular at the moment but if he would just stop and think for a bit, he might realise that there are many ways to achieve the same outcome, and this one would go down far better with the general public than what he was trying to defend on wednesday.

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