The new ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill’ has made the headlines in several respects this week. It proposes a whole host of important changes to the way in which the criminal justice system operates, however certain lawyers have argued that it will not be enough to combat ‘decades of underfunding and mounting backlogs’.
From an expansion of child abuse laws to tougher punishments for teenagers and vandals, we’ll take you through the Bill’s key proposals and how the measures have been received.
What is the new Bill?
- The Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on 9 March 2021 with the aim of cutting crime and building safer communities.
- The government hopes that the new legislation will restore confidence in the criminal justice system.
What new laws will the legislation include?
- Following the murder of 17 year-old Ellie Gould by her ex-boyfriend of the same age, teenagers who commit muder will face much longer in prison.
- Currently, the minimum term for a convicted murder under the age of 18 is 12 years (as opposed to 15 years for adults).
- The new Bill introduces a ‘sliding scale’:
- 10-14 year-olds will face at least 50% of the adult equivalent sentence
- 15-16 year-olds will face at least 66% of the adult equivalent sentence;
- 17 year-olds will face at least 90% of the adult equivalent sentence.
- For adults convicted of the most serious murders, the current minimum sentence is 30 years - under the new laws, 17 year-olds would face a minimum of 27 years behind bars.
Whole Life Order for premeditated murders of children
- The new Bill seeks to make ‘whole life orders’ (i.e. a life sentence with no parole) the starting point for sentencing over 21 year-olds for premeditated murders of children.
- Currently, judges can only impose such a sentence on murders involving abduction or sexual/sadistic motivations.
- Judicial discretion means that judges will retain the power to decide whether or not to enforce a whole life order depending on the facts of each case.
Life sentences for drivers who kill
- Those that cause death by dangerous driving could now face life in prison, particularly if intoxicated (compared with the current 14 years).
Expanded child abuse laws
- Following the uncovering of child sex abuse in UK football clubs, the NSPCC have campaigned for an extension of the legal protection afforded to 16 and 17 year-olds who are targeted by those in positions of influence/power.
- Although the age of consent is 16, it is still illegal for those in certain ‘positions of trust’ - such as teachers, doctors, or social workers - to have a sexual relationship with a 16 or 17 year-old.
- The Bill proposes that ‘Position of Trust’ laws will further be extended to include new roles such as sports coaches and religious leaders.
Tougher punishments for the criminal damage of statues and memorials
- Following the destruction of a number of statues and memorials across the country in the past year, those who criminally damage statues could now face up to 10 years in jail plus a £2,500 fine.
- Previously where the damage caused was of a value less than £5,000, the maximum prison sentence was 3 months. The changes mean even inexpensive damage could potentially attract a longer jail term.
The new Bill will also give police officers more powers and protection:
- New ‘Serious Violence Reduction Orders’ will give the police extra powers to stop and search adults convicted of knife and offensive weapons offences.
- Police officers will have more power to stop disruptive protests from infringing on the rights and freedoms of others.
- The maximum sentencing for assaulting an emergency worker will be doubled from 12 months to 2 years.
PM Boris Johnson has previously heralded the Conservatives as the party for ‘Law and Order’- but to what end?
Many of the Bill’s measures have been welcomed, but others have proved controversial among campaigners.
Are longer sentences really the answer?
- Recently in Parliament, Chris Philp (the minister in charge of sentencing), referred to evidence that being caught and punished is a much greater deterrent to criminals than the actual length of prison sentences.
- Prison reform campaigners argue that the Bill, which proposes higher sentences for lesser crimes, runs in stark contrast to these findings and would exert further pressure on an already stretched prison service.
- The Ministry of Justice has defended the measures - stating that increasing length of sentences will protect the public and punish criminals.
Are the restrictions on peaceful protests proportionate?
- The government argue that increasing police powers to manage protests is required to manage the ‘high disruptive tactics used by some protesters [which] cause a disproportionate impact on the surrounding communities and are a drain on public funds’.
- However campaigners at the Good Law Project believe the measures are an attempt to ‘silence dissent’ and ‘would give sweeping new powers to the police to restrict peaceful protests – including by giving them the powers to set conditions on the duration of protests, set maximum noise levels, and put restrictions on where protests can take place’.
Will enhanced stop and search powers worsen racial discrimination?
- The government argues that increased stop and search powers will improve the impact of knife crime in communities, noting that ‘BAME individuals, in particular, are disproportionately impacted’.
- The charity Justice however has previously argued that ‘stop and search’ is one of the key reasons why there is a disproportionate representation of black people in the criminal-justice system. There is concern that adding to officers’ powers will increase the potential for discrimination.
The Bill had its first sitting in the House of Commons on 9th March 2021 and will need to progress through a number of stages in both Houses before it is passed as law.
Click here to see the Bill’s progress. Read the full Government press release on the new Bill here.
With thanks to Samantha Ruston for her work on this article