Incentives for early guilty pleas could lead to overcrowded prisons, report warns

Draft guidelines to offer incentives for early guilty pleas could lead to overcrowding in prisons, a report from the Justice Committee has warned.

The proposals are designed to encourage those intending on pleading guilty to do so as early as possible, to reduce the impact on victims and save public time and money.

The draft plans maintain the current reduction for a plea at the first stage of court proceedings, one-third, with a lower reduction at a later stage compared to that currently available: one-fifth, rather than a quarter. The idea is that a defendant will have a greater incentive to plead guilty the first time they are asked in court.

However, the report suggests that limited research in this area means there is uncertainty around how defendants would respond to such changes.

It suggests that some defendants who have missed the first option to plead guilty may instead opt to go to trial, costing more public time and money and resulting in longer sentences. It claims that up to 4,000 additional prison places may be needed to account for the longer sentences.

Before progressing with the new plans, the Committee advises that further research is needed to understand what the impact will be.

Bob Neill, Committee chair, said: "There has not been enough research to assess the possible impact on prisons and other aspects of the criminal justice system. The Sentencing Council should conduct further research into the factors that influence a defendant’s decision to plead guilty, to inform a more comprehensive and robust reassessment of the draft guideline, taking into account costs and savings to all aspects of the criminal justice system, especially the prison population."