New Sentencing Guidelines For People With Mental Disorders
Criminals with mental illnesses and learning difficulties could be given more lenient sentences under planned new sentencing guidelines.
The proposals put forward by The Sentencing Council would provide specific guidelines for offenders with mental illnesses and other conditions. Those affected by the new guidelines would include offenders with post-traumatic stress disorder, low IQ, dyslexia, or a history of drug abuse.
The Sentencing Council says the changes would provide the courts with “a clear structure and process to follow when sentencing people with mental health conditions and disorders, and those with learning disabilities, autism, brain injury, substance misuse disorders and dementia.”
Proponents say the changes would “help judges and magistrates assess how much responsibility offenders retain for their crime, given their condition and how it affects them.”
Under the reform, judges and magistrates would be advised to obtain and consider a medical report for relevant offenders before imposing a prison sentence, except where a fixed sentencing requirement is set by law.
The courts would then consider whether the offender should be given a treatment order for rehabilitation rather than a prison sentence. The council’s draft proposal notes however that these factors should be balanced by judges against considerations of public protection and the right of victims to feel safe.
The proposal also stipulates that a court recommending a mental health disposal must ensure that treatment is in fact available before making the order.
Mental illness is higher among prisoners
The proposals have been welcomed by mental health campaigners, with a spokesperson for the charity Rethink Mental Illness saying:
“This is a big step towards the justice system having a better understanding of mental illness . . . In practice it will mean that people affected by mental illness who are in contact with the criminal justice system will have their illness properly taken into account, and in a consistent way.”
Judge Rosa Dean, a member of the Sentencing Council, similarly heralded the changes as an important progression in the criminal justice system’s approach to mental health, saying:
“As a society we are becoming increasingly aware of the prevalence of mental health conditions and disorders, particularly among people in the criminal justice system.”
Data suggests that the rate of mental health problems is significantly higher amongst criminals than the general population, with nearly 1 in 4 prison inmates (23%) having prior contact with mental health services and 7% having learning difficulties.
If the new guidelines are introduced, judges and magistrates would consider a list of questions in determining whether an offender with a mental health disorder may be more or less responsible for their crime. Draft questions suggested in the proposal include: “Did the offender have any insight into their illness?” and “Did the offender seek help, and fail to receive appropriate treatment or care?”
The proposal emphasises that an offender’s condition may not always be pertinent, noting: “In some cases the condition may mean that culpability is significantly reduced, in others, the condition may have no relevance to culpability.”
Magistrates say proposals insufficient
Those who welcome the planned changes say that they will lead to a more consistent and fair handling of mental health considerations in criminal proceedings.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice praised the guideline proposals on this basis, adding that: “It is vital the courts have clear and consistent guidance in these often complex cases, so that an offender’s mental health is addressed and the public kept safe.”
The Magistrates Association (MA) has however expressed concern that the guidelines “will not, in isolation, be effective in ensuring consistency of sentencing for [offenders],” due to a general lack of rehabilitative support options. MA chair John Bache said: “The biggest issue causing inconsistency is a lack of appropriate community options offering treatment or support for vulnerabilities linked to offending behaviour.”
Mr. Bache further warned: “It is also likely that without adequate assessments being done to identify relevant vulnerabilities, sentencers will not have sufficient information to take account of any guideline.”
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