Sentencing Council publishes equality and diversity review of sentencing guidelines

11 January 2023

The Sentencing Council has published the findings of research designed to identify and analyse any potential for the Council’s work to cause disparity in sentencing outcomes across demographic groups.

The research, conducted by the University of Hertfordshire to support the Council’s commitment to “explore and consider issues of equality and diversity relevant to our work”, examined the real and perceived impact of sentencing guidelines on specific groups of offenders. It assessed the potential influence of the language, factors and explanatory texts used in guidelines, as well as their structure, the guideline development process, the Council’s relationship with stakeholders and our communications.

The research used a multi-method approach that combined textual and data analysis and engagement with external research participants. Those research participants included 14 civil society organisations, covering all relevant equality, diversity and inclusion-related areas (such as sex, age and race).

The team also worked with 33 sentencers (including magistrates, district judges, Crown Court judges, and High Court judges) and 20 defence lawyers. All took part anonymously in the research.

The findings of the research include:

Concerns by some research participants that some factors in sentencing guidelines could lead to particular disparities in sentencing outcomes were not always borne out by the data analysis. For example, the data analysis indicated that the factors had a mixed impact across the different offences included in the study and that there were varying impacts on sentencing outcomes across different demographic groups.

Some research participants thought that women are likely to be sentenced more harshly than men. However, the data analysis showed that men were more likely than women to receive immediate custody for those robbery and theft offences that were included in the research.

The data analysis found no strong or consistent evidence of sentencing disparities for different ethnic groups for those offences looked at, although it should be noted that this does not accord with previous Sentencing Council work and other academic research.

Data analysis did support research participants’ perceptions that younger offenders receive more favourable sentencing outcomes. Defence lawyers and sentencers commented positively on the Sentencing children and young people guideline.

The Council is committed to a programme of work that will allow it to respond to findings in this research and is already working on some of the issues identified.

The Council’s programme of work includes:

Reviewing the use and application of aggravating and mitigating factors and expanded explanations in sentencing guidelines.

Reviewing the Imposition of community and custodial sentences guideline, which includes looking at whether and when sentencers request pre-sentence reports and so receive all the information needed about an offender.

Collecting data in magistrates’ courts and the Crown Court that will provide further information for research.

Conducting user testing of our digital guidelines, to explore how sentencers use the sentencing guidelines, including how they use the expanded explanations.