Martin Evans, Telegraph, April 9, 2019
Criminals with a wide range of mental health conditions and learning difficulties could receive more lenient sentences under guidelines being issued to judges and magistrates.
Conditions ranging from schizophrenia to post traumatic stress disorder, and low IQ to dyslexia, ought to be taken into consideration when a court is deciding what punishment to hand out, according to proposals being introduced by the Sentencing Council.
As part of the guidelines, judges will be asked to assess what extent a person’s condition or disability might have played in them committing their offence.
The move is part of an effort to ensure that judges and magistrates have a clearer structure when dealing with people with a wide range of conditions.
According to the Sentencing Council, almost a quarter of all prison inmates have had some prior contact with mental health services.
In addition around seven per cent of the prison population is thought to have a learning disability, compared with two per cent of the rest of the population.
In setting out the proposals, which are now the subject of a public consultation, the Sentencing Council stressed it was important to “balance the consideration of the rights and needs of offenders, with the protection of the public and the recognition of the rights and needs of the victims to feel safe and see justice done”.
But under the new guidelines, judges will be asked to consider a series of questions when sentencing, intended to explore how much responsibility an offender bears for their crime.
Among the issues the judge will be expected to examine is to what extent a person’s condition prevented them from making a rational decision.
Judges will be asked to consider a convict’s mental health condition when sentencing Credit: AFP
Another factor that could be relevant is whether they sought appropriate treatment or care for their condition, or whether they exacerbated it by drinking alcohol or taking drugs.
The draft guidance covers conditions and disorders including learning disabilities, schizophrenia, depression, post-traumatic stress, dementia and disorders resulting from drug or alcohol misuse.
Dyslexia and IQ below the national average of between 80 and 120, could also be considered as relevant factors in some crimes.
The “mere fact” that an offender has such a condition or disorder does not necessarily mean that it will have an impact on sentencing, according to the draft guidance, which is subject to consultation.
It says: “In some cases the condition may mean that culpability is significantly reduced, in others, the condition may have no relevance to culpability.”
The proposals state: “The relevance of any condition will depend on the nature, extent and effect of the condition on an individual and whether there is a causal connection between the condition and the offence.
“It is for sentencers to decide how much responsibility the offender retains for the offence, given the particular disorder or condition and the specific facts of the case at hand.”
Sentencing Council member Judge Rosa Dean said: “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.
“The council believes that offenders who have a mental health condition or disorder, neurological impairment or developmental disorder should be confident that the court has the information it needs to take a consistent approach to sentencing and pass an appropriate sentence.
“The offender’s mental health is just one element that the courts must consider, and the guideline strives to balance the rights and needs of offenders with protecting the public, the rights of victims and families, and their need to feel safe.”
Lucy Schonegevel, head of health influencing at charity Rethink Mental Illness, said: “This is a big step towards the justice system having a better understanding of mental illness, as it’s the first time there will be specific sentencing guidelines in this area.”
Sentencing guidelines must be followed, unless a judge or magistrate considers it is not in the interests of justice to do so.