The Government’s hard line law and order agenda has been in the media once again this week with the news that the maximum penalty for the offence of causing death by dangerous driving is now increased from 14 years imprisonment to life imprisonment.
This change comes into effect as a result of s86 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 which comes into force on 28 June. The same provision also increases the maximum sentence for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs, again from 14 years to life. The minimum periods of disqualification from driving on conviction for each offence are also increased.
The statute itself is a striking mish-mash of provisions covering a range of issues from sexual offences to hare coursing. The Home Office circular confirming that the s86 has received royal assent refers back to the Government’s 2019 election pledge to “make the country safer by empowering the police and courts to take more effective action against crime…” and to introduce “tougher sentencing for the worst offenders…”
If the rhetoric sounds familiar, that is because it is. Every Government since Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard’s infamous “Prison Works !” slogan in the 1990s has pursued, with greater or lesser enthusiasm, a predominantly punitive approach to sentencing, which has been reflected in ever increasing sentences over a period three decades now.
In some cases, ministers have been too fearful of media reaction to appear anything less than robust when it comes to sentencing. Others have championed longer sentences with positively ferocious enthusiasm. The current Home Office team appears to fall into the latter category.
Fatal road accident cases understandably arouse strong feelings, as there is a tragedy at the heart of every one. It is inevitable that an avoidable death leads to a strong desire for justice. But it is difficult to see this measure as anything more than a gesture. It is far from clear, for instance, that an increase of the maximum from 14 years - already a very lengthy sentence - will have any tangible deterrent effect.
And it is hard to see what cases would in fact ever attract the maximum sentence. On the other hand though, the drawback of raising the maximum so drastically is that all sentences for the offence, including for less serious cases that come nowhere the life sentence mark, are dragged upwards nearer to the maximum, as part the raising of the overall tariff.
In practice, the increased maximum makes sentences that were previously considered proportionate now too lenient. This is an effect that criminal lawyers are very familiar with, but is usually overlooked by legislators who like to talk about the new higher sentence applying only in the most egregious of cases.
One likely consequence of this change will be fewer guilty pleas, which will hardly benefit the families of victims. An inescapable consequence will be yet more strain on the prison system and fewer resources available for rehabilitation. While perhaps less immediate or obvious, that will ultimately be to the detriment of the victims of crime too.